By Zachary D. Roberts
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Say "homeschooling" and what tends to come to mind are the whitest people you know, holding Sunday school every day of the week in their basements, producing kids who can declaim against Charles Darwin for hours on end, but who are so screwed up socially that you can't imagine them getting a date, except years later as part of a group outing to Christian Day at Disney World.
So, with that admittedly over-broad stereotype in mind, it's something of a shock to see the lessons in progress at Bread Stuy, a small café in Brooklyn, where customers sip at their coffee and read newspapers, unaware that a woman named P. Aurora Robinson is holding a homeschooling class in their midst.
Her two teenagers, working at laptops, are tapping away at their writing assignments for the day. They're a little young for coffeehouse literary types, but otherwise look the part: Deion in a baseball cap, Tau wearing his hair in twists, both hunched over their screens, glasses resting on the tips of their noses. They're slender, studious, and seriously into their work.
And they're black.
Robinson, like a small but growing number of black parents, has chosen to take her son Tau out of the public-school system and teach him on her own (Deion is a cousin's child she's also teaching).
In the 2006–2007 school year, the city's Department of Education says that 3,654 students in New York were homeschooled. Most are white, but a growing number are African-American. Black parents tend to take their children out of the schools for other than religious reasons, and homeschooling groups say black children taught at home are nearly always boys. Like Robinson, some of New York's parents have concluded that the school system is failing the city's black boys, and have elected to teach them at home as an alternative.
Robinson's motives were even more specific: She wanted to cushion Tau from the serious culture shock of moving from rural Missouri to her hometown of Brooklyn.
She had been teaching in Springfield, Missouri, as a professor of architecture at Drury College, the only black member of the architecture faculty. Her son, meanwhile, was teased in the usual way for being one of the few black students in a white school. Tau says he had to explain to his teachers and fellow students that just because he was black didn't mean that he was from "the 'hood."
"Somehow, he was supposed to serve them better if he was more ghetto," says his mother. "We were out there on our own in the badlands."
Robinson decided she'd had enough of Missouri, left her job, sold her home, and brought Tau back to Brooklyn. To prepare her son for the change, she decided to teach Tau at home and live off her savings.
"I've been living off of my savings for two years, which has been interesting. But that is who I am. I'm capable of living off of my savings and enjoying life regardless of it," she says.
Tau would have been entering the seventh grade, but instead of sending him to school, she shelled out $1,200 for a full-year curriculum from a company called Calvert Education Services, which included textbooks and lesson plans. She had to make sure that Tau kept up with his counterparts at junior high school: In New York, children who are homeschooled must still meet public-school requirements. There are quarterly reviews and year-end tests that must be completed and reported to the DOE before a child can move to the next grade. And with the Calvert materials, Robinson felt Tau would keep up. And, of course, she could add her own preferences to what he was learning.
For the second year of his homeschooling, Tau was joined by Deion, a cousin, who had been attending P.S. 35, which is directly across the street from Bread Stuy, the coffeeshop that they use frequently. Comprising grades six through eight, P.S. 35 is 89 percent black, and until he was pulled out of it, Deion spent his seventh grade being chased home by bullies.
"When his parents requested a relocation to another school, they were given a letter saying, 'At this time we are unable to do this, and maybe in January we can re-evaluate the situation.' Now, I don't know about you, but at that point it meant, 'Oh, fuck you'," says Robinson.
So she has taken on the teaching of both eighth graders in the coffeeshop near the school they would otherwise be attending.
Their assignment today was to write an essay describing the first time they had won while playing a video game. Another time, she asks them to describe the origin and definition of the slang word po-po, short for "police."
She tries to make the lessons fun and informative. "I have them reading books like The Other Toussaint," she says, referring to a biography of Pierre Toussaint, the Haitian slave who became a free—and rich—man in early-19th-century New York. "I want them to have a more Afrocentric perspective and understand who our writers were and how they come about documenting our history." She also takes the boys with her when she reads to young children at a bookstore, and as she participates in other community activities.