Rodney Robinson was months from graduating when his Spanish teacher referred to him and other students of color in class as the “peanut gallery” — the worst part of the venue and the only option for black theatergoers during segregation.

He flipped a desk. He had to meet with the school’s assistant principal with the possibility of getting expelled for destroying school property.

Instead, he found an ally in Wayne Lewis, the first black school leader at King William High School, who told Robinson to channel his anger toward change.

Robinson still had to serve a week of in-school suspension, but in his week of seclusion, he got a frequent visitor: Lewis. The assistant principal helped him fill out an application for Lewis’ alma mater, Virginia State University, and financial aid documents — a push Robinson said he needed as a first-generation college student.

“It was the first time someone had talked to me about their college days,” Robinson said. “It really got me interested.”

The connection changed his life. Now Robinson deploys that empathy at Richmond Public Schools’ Virgie Binford Education Center, looking beyond his students’ circumstances. They need love and care, he said, and it helps when the teacher standing at the front of the classroom looks like them.

Within the week, they’ll learn whether the man who covered the stark walls of Richmond’s juvenile detention center with images of leaders who also look like them is the best teacher in the country.

He’s already in the top four. Robinson said he hopes to win National Teacher of the Year not just for himself, but for his students and for his mother, who dreamed of becoming a teacher but fell short; not because of talent but because of the color of her skin.

Robinson is still getting used to being recognized in the grocery store and other public places. He has turned his platform into a call for more black male teachers and more programs and counseling for at-risk students.

“My students’ stories need to be told,” he said.

***

Robinson’s first lesson in equity came on his 15th birthday.

He was excited to go to the local King William County teen club, a place where his older brothers had all gone when they turned 15. His mother said no.

Robinson — the youngest of five siblings — sneaked out of the house for the party anyway. It devolved into chaos, with a fight breaking out that enveloped him.

He confessed to Sylvia Robinson later that week. Instead of punishing him, she explained her reasoning: His brothers were ready for those surroundings at 15; Robinson wasn’t.

“‘It may not seem fair, but it’s what is right for you,’” Robinson, 40, remembers her saying.

Robinson turned the lesson from 25 years ago into his educational mantra, giving all students what they need and not adapting a one-size-fits-all approach in his classroom.

“Equality said I was old enough to go to the club,” he wrote in his National Teacher of the Year application. “Equity said I needed to grow and mature more before I would be ready to go to the club environment.”

His mother not only shaped his mindset, but inspired him to become a teacher.

The football player would sit in the back of the classroom after practices and watch Sylvia pursue her GED. He saw his mother — working 10-hour days at her in-home day care — thrive in her pursuit of an education and wanted the same. She wanted to be a classroom teacher but never was, leaving her youngest son to fulfill her dream.

First he needed to go to college.

When Robinson in the eighth grade said he wasn’t interested, his father, Elmore, taught him a lesson by signing him up for the farm work that would await him otherwise. Robinson lasted less than an hour and a half before retreating home to be with his cousins, who hadn’t yet finished the movie they were watching when he left to bail hay.

But Robinson struggled to find his place in a school district with few educators who looked like him. He had just one black male teacher in his entire K-12 education, an issue still affecting Virginia schools despite studies showing large academic benefits for black students when they have a black teacher.

Set on improving black male representation — only two out of every 100 teachers in the U.S. are black men — Robinson studied at Virginia State University and graduated with a history degree in 2000, taking the lessons learned at a historically black college into classrooms filled with black students.

***

Degree in hand, Robinson set out to find his students.

An interview at James River High School in Chesterfield County made him understand where he didn’t want to teach. All had gone well, Robinson thought, but when he asked about extracurricular activities the school offered, the interviewer jumped to mention the black student government and black choir.

“I didn’t want to be put in that box,” he said.

Robinson instead applied to Richmond and was placed at Lucille Brown Middle School, where he set out to work with the most challenging students, said his first year teaching mentor, David Hudson, now the principal at Franklin Military Academy. Robinson moved to George Wythe High School before transferring in the 2003-04 school year to Armstrong High School in the city’s East End.

That’s when his own trauma started.

He became invested in his students’ lives, both in and out of school. For many, that meant dealing with loved ones being shot and killed.

Since being named the Richmond Public Schools Teacher of the Year in November 2017, Robinson has known 20 students who were killed and 30 more who were shot. The closeness he works to create in the classroom left him vulnerable to sharing his students’ pain.

He recently sought therapy to cope with the fact that he doesn’t remember the last time someone under 25 was killed in Richmond and he didn’t have some sort of connection to them.

“You’ve seen the things they can achieve, so the secondary trauma is hard,” he said.

With a heightened platform, Robinson has criticized the negative stigma surrounding mental health treatment while encouraging his current students to take their court-ordered therapy seriously. He takes time out of class to talk with students about what was happening in their neighborhoods and who was hurting.

“If you don’t address it, it’s going to be a cloud that hangs over the class and kids aren’t going to be able to focus,” he said. “You have to show them that you care about what’s going on, and then you’ll be able to get them to learn.”

Doron Battle called Robinson a “breath of fresh air” as a teacher, having had him for history at Armstrong when he was a junior. The visual lessons stuck with him. Robinson didn’t just tell students about the invasion of Normandy in World War II, he showed them scenes from “Saving Private Ryan” to drive home the point. They had color-coded notebooks to help them remember specific material.

“He had a way of bringing it all in and made things he was telling us come to life,” Battle said.

Said Hubert Anderson, another former student: “He was just so involved and in tune with his students.”

Robinson inspired Battle, now 30, to go into education, counseling him as Battle changed careers to teach special education students at George Mason Elementary School, also in the city’s East End.

Along with two other teachers, including Anderson, Battle started a mentorship program that is now expanding citywide for male students of color to be paired with male role models.

***

Ta’Neshia Ford approached her former colleague at the scorer’s table at an Armstrong basketball game with a simple offer for Robinson: change schools.

He’d been at Armstrong for a dozen years and he was starting to get burnt out. Ford and Robinson had dreamed, she said, of making more of a difference for the most at-risk students. Robinson also had a desire to more fully understand the school-to-prison pipeline.

Looking for a deeper challenge, the beloved East End teacher left his school.

Robinson is still the voice of Armstrong, serving as the public address announcer for sports games. But starting in 2015 his day-to-day teaching moved to Virgie Binford, a school under the Richmond Public Schools umbrella but housed within the city’s juvenile detention center. Every student he taught had a criminal past, so Robinson made it his mission to make sure they had a bright future.

When he started there, he immediately noticed the bare, white walls. They made the school feel like a maximum security adult prison without the bars, he thought.

“White walls just scream jail, and I don’t like jail,” he said.

The walls are now covered with inspirational quotes and pictures, mostly of black leaders from history — the result of students naming their heroes and creating displays of them. There are pictures of Frederick Douglass, Barack and Michelle Obama, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Jackie Robinson, just to name a few. A pictorial timeline of African-American history — the first thing he hung up — is placed near the exit to try to motivate students as they leave the school and re-enter society. College pennants line the top of the windows.

“It’s something positive to see everywhere they look,” said Ford, the principal who recruited him.

On his first day at the school, there were three familiar faces in his class.

They all received failing grades in his class the previous year at Armstrong. They’d been suspended and arrested while they were out of school and now found themselves at the juvenile detention center. Robinson blamed himself for their incarceration.

“My failure to build that relationship was why they were there,” he said of what he considers his biggest failure as a teacher. “It just really put me in my place, and I had to re-evaluate what I do.”

It led to him changing his grading system — he no longer gives out zeros — and committing to getting to know each of his students, not just some.

His students are more than inmates. They’re fans of “Teen Wolf.” They play pickup basketball (the quality’s not great, Robinson jokes). They have dreams of graduation and college, partially thanks to an inspiring teacher.

“My students’ life experiences have led to bad choices, which have caused their incarceration. Most are in survival mode 24 hours a day, seven days a week,” he wrote in his National Teacher of the Year application. “The students do not have the vision to understand the juvenile justice system because they are too busy trying to survive the system.”

As part of the Yale National Initiative, an institute based at the Connecticut university to improve teaching in public schools, Robinson developed his own curriculum on the history of prison and the Virginia juvenile justice system.

Over the course of three weeks this school year, students looked at the historical roots of the prison system in the U.S., learning about the public economic and social policies that led to the creation of the system and the segregation behind those policies. They looked at data from the Virginia Department of Juvenile Justice and wrote journal entries modeled after the first-person letters popularized by The Players’ Tribune, a sports website with essays written by athletes, with advice to give to other students so they wouldn’t be incarcerated.

“Kids have big dreams — they just don’t know how to get there,” Robinson said. “This is a temporary stop, and their goals can still be achieved.”

They practiced by challenging the detention center’s meal policy. They weren’t getting enough food, they said, for growing teenagers. Robinson had taught them the history of activism and protests in several classroom lessons, so the students wrote letters demanding meal policy changes to the center’s supervisors.

The supervisors met with the students, and the policy was changed to add two more snacks in addition to breakfast, lunch and dinner.

“Our job is to give them hope,” said Robinson, who makes sure his students are registered to vote before they leave high school.

***

Gov. Ralph Northam stood at the lectern inside Virgie Binford gymnasium on Jan. 23 and revealed a secret Robinson had kept all month: he was one of four finalists for National Teacher of the Year.

The next week, the teacher who had embraced Northam at the announcement was calling for the governor’s resignation.

A racist photo — showing one person in blackface and another in a Ku Klux Klan robe — was found on Northam’s medical school yearbook page, a discovery that threw Virginia politics into a tailspin. The governor initially said it was him in the photo and apologized, but later retracted the apology and said it wasn’t him.

“If true, this is upsetting and disappointing and should disqualify him from representing the people in Virginia,” Robinson said the night of Feb. 1, when the racist photo circulated.

Soon after, photos of Robinson and Northam taken the week earlier at the finalist announcement began to circulate on social media, with some attacking Robinson for cozying up to Northam, calling Robinson an “Uncle Tom” and a sellout. Robinson turned the situation into a teachable moment — creating a lesson on the history of blackface in the U.S.

Days later, when Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax was accused of sexual assault, Robinson had his students — mostly males — reflect on their attitudes toward women.

Northam and Fairfax remain in office. And Robinson may meet with another polarizing politician.

The winner of the National Teacher of the Year competition has historically been treated to a special ceremony at the White House. Robinson makes it no secret that he didn’t vote for its current occupant, President Donald Trump. But while sports teams, including the University of Virginia men’s basketball team, debate whether to be greeted by Trump, Robinson said he’d go.

“It’s to honor the people who worked for people with little respect for them,” he said, referring to slaves who built the White House. “It’s not about Trump.”

He needs to carry his message of equity in education to the world, he said, telling the stories of his students and his own past to anyone who will listen. By winning, he’d be pulled out of the classroom for a year and spend that time as an education evangelist.

Robinson’s still not sure how he’d deal with a full year away from the classroom, a place he’s owned for the past two decades.

He has sought the counsel of Richmond schools chief Jason Kamras, the 2005 winner of the award, whose victory propelled him into the top ranks of Washington, D.C., public schools.

“Always be you,” Kamras told Robinson. “You’re going to be in a place of power. You’re going to be in places where what you have to say will make people uncomfortable, but that’s exactly why you need to say it.”

He’s already got a stage: on social media, at the mounting number of speaking engagements, and potentially the White House. He knows the message he wants to share: Students of color need more teachers of color and impoverished students need more resources.

Soon we’ll find out if a smart, angry, compassionate King William native turned Richmond teacher will be able to spread it across the nation, with a voice of authority as the country’s best teacher.

jmattingly@timesdispatch.com

(804) 649-6012

Twitter: @jmattingly306

Education Reporter

Justin Mattingly covers K-12 schools and higher education. A northern New York native and a Syracuse University alumnus, he's worked at the RTD since 2017. You can follow him on Twitter at @jmattingly306.

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