- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 5, 2006

I wish that every student could have a teacher like “Baba Kamau” Robinson, an educator like few others and a member of my extended family tree rooted in the Washington Star.

Albert L. Robinson, 50, the teaching principal of Roots Activity Learning Center, the oldest Afrocentric private school in the District, died Saturday at Washington Hospital Center from complications caused by severe hypertension. His death was sudden and unexpected by his family, friends, colleagues and students.

He taught hundreds of black D.C. middle school children to be positive and proud of their African heritage. “Baba Kamau” was, quite literally, a father figure. (In fact, baba kamau means “father” in Swahili.) He grew up on Tuckerman Street Northwest, only a stone’s throw from the Roots building and graduated from Calvin Coolidge High School, at which he also served as a student teacher.

“He was like a best friend and like a second father, said Nia Newton, 13, an eighth-grader at Roots. He often consoled and encouraged her, saying, “Nia, it’s going to be OK.”

“He’d hug us and say he loved us, and I felt with every breath he gave me all the energy that he had,” she said.

At Roots, the students are taught in “a holistic approach” with one teacher who instructs them in all subjects throughout their grade level so they can “have a parent away from home,” said Bernida Thompson, who co-founded Roots with Roland Amerson, her former husband, in 1977 as a learning center for infants and preschoolers.

The “dynamic educator and motivator for his students and colleagues alike,” Ms. Thompson said, created an atmosphere of “subliminal seduction” that encouraged “everyone to do their best and feel good about themselves.”

His influence was such that a former student, Maleka Kamara, returned after college to follow Mr. Robinson’s fiancee, Donna Derry, as the head teacher of the infant center at Roots.

Erudite but earthy, Kamau believed in creating a peaceful setting for his students by burning incense, playing soft jazz music and filling his classroom and the school walls with positive proverbs and quotes from African, as well as black-American, scholars and leaders.

His famous words to everyone daily, Ms. Thompson said, were to “Keep up the good work.” Given his calming disposition, “he had an elegant and diplomatic way of de-escalating conflict.”

Rachael Peart, who was Kamau’s student from fifth through eighth grades, said: “He taught me everything I know.”

She remembered that he tried to get through as much of the curriculum as possible in one year, and “we even got to trigonometry.” And he told them: “Don’t try to do anything; just do it, because trying won’t get you anywhere, but doing will get you somewhere.”

I met the beloved educator when we were editorial clerks at the Washington Star back in the mid-1970s when he was known as Leroy. Still, as we grew older, one thing remained constant: I never saw the slim, tall, chestnut-colored Kamau without a book in his hand.

The day after his death, more than 200 people attended a prayer vigil and healing service at Roots. A retreat healing day was led by a grief counselor for his students Tuesday.

With his big eyes resembling those of author James Baldwin, Kamau worked at the bookstores at the University of the District of Columbia (UDC) and the Woodward & Lothrop department store, where he soaked up as much history, literature, philosophy, science, music and art as possible. A nonjudgmental nonconformist who grew magnificent dreadlocks and couldn’t care less about monetary gain, he enjoyed engaging in long, deep discussions to share the difficult-to-find knowledge that he had discovered.

“He was an avid reader,” Ms. Thompson said. While Kamau attended UDC, he frequently visited the school to tell the cutting-edge educators that he wanted to join them.

Mr. Robinson joined the staff at Roots in 1984 and taught in all of the school’s divisions. He was named principal six years ago. The students had some of the highest standardized reading and math test scores in the city on the Stanford 9 tests. A former student who now attends Yale University said she achieved 1500 on the SAT and credits Mr. Robinson for much of her success.

Another student now in college said that when the students were studying Egypt and they reached the section on Egyptian burial practices and the tombs, Kamau told them that the only shrine he wanted from them was an ability and eagerness to share knowledge with others to improve humanity.

“Leroy was one of those rare Washington educators who restored the word ‘honor’ to what once stood as a most honorable profession in black America,” said Deborah Simmons, a friend, former co-worker and deputy editorial page editor at The Washington Times.

“He achieved this inside the classroom at a time when the District’s public school students — especially its black students — remain on the bottom rung of local, regional and national academic ladders. That he was a man and role model in a field dominated by women makes him worthy of still more accolades.”

Jackie Roundtree, a cousin and another former Star staffer, said: “Kamau was the embodiment of a teacher and a student. From the time he learned to read, he was always inquisitive, always wanted to share knowledge and always loved people, particularly children.

“He was destined to be a teacher. He collected books and shared books. I know that there are a hundred children who learned to read and who loved to learn because of him.”

Yes, Kamau was a gifted teacher, but he was also a loving family member and great friend. He will be missed by all.

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