The street teacher

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August 16, 2004 // UPDATED 3:23 pm - April 25, 2007
By: sue rich
sue rich

Rosa Bogar teaches blacks their history, one bus stop at a time

Draped in bright clothing of her own design and dripping with gold or silver jewelry, Rosa Bogar cuts a striking figure at the City Center bus stop on 7th & Nicollet Mall. Yet, she is shy. Often, she quietly sits alone, awaiting invitation, verbal or non-, before pulling a small worn manila envelope from her bag.

Inside, are copies of her "Reality Check," a checklist of noteworthy American blacks she believes young blacks should know: Arthur Ashe, Frederick Douglass, Zora Neale Hurston, Thurgood Marshall, Alex Haley and some 20 others.

The quiz is part of how Bogar tries to reconnect black youth to their roots -- so they're not, as she puts it, "just blown around by the winds of the day."

Some nights, the air "isn't quite right" and Bogar boards the bus to one of her sons' homes feeling dejected, without a single completed checklist/pop-street quiz. Yet, more often than not, she comes upon a familiar face who breaks the bus stop ice.

"Hey!" says Aaron Edwards, extending his arms.

The 20-something Minneapolis Community and Technical College architectural draftsmanship student embraces Bogar then pulls back to ask, "You still doin' that quiz?" Edwards took it a month earlier and is game for a re-try.

Beaming, Bogar pulls out the envelope, a quiz and a black ballpoint pen. She and Edwards, clad in a Vikings jersey and cap with the price tag still on it, settle onto a City Center bus bench to review the Reality Check names.

Between drags on his thin cigar, Edwards recalls many of those he'd previously missed. Bogar wields the pen and marks an "X" in the box by each name he doesn't recognize. Edwards remembers 14 black trailblazers this time, up from seven. He smiles broadly and relishes his improvement, yet vows to do "even better next time."

Bogar said she receives such warm welcomes surprisingly often; it seems she has a knack for running into young adults with whom she worked and formed bonds when they were kids. The street teacher spent 31 years as a part-time educational assistant in Minneapolis Public Schools, primarily tutoring K-8 kids one on one.

Bogar found that her pupils' poor marks were most likely due to behavior problems, not intellectual deficiencies. She concluded that such acting out stemmed from troubles beyond most teachers' grasp, difficulties with peers or dysfunctional families. Since the kids were often tight-lipped, it was difficult to uncover the source of their problems. And she only seemed to meet their parents when the child faced expulsion.

"Can you believe that?" she asked, incredulous of parents' lack of involvement in their children's education.

Such concerns echo Bill Cosby's high-profile criticisms of the black community. However, Bogar's normally velvety voice turns bitter when she speaks of the superstar. She feels he has failed to account for institutional racism as he lambastes his brothers and sisters, rather than supporting them.

"It's complicated," Bogar says of the reasons for what she perceives as the fall of black American youth. She isn't sure of exactly what happened, but something certainly did in the late '80s and early '90s she says -- when black youth went from "sliding down the hill" to barreling down a cliff.

Yet Bogar believes she has crafted a simple lifesaver. She believes black youth are desperate for mentorship. And in an age that celebrates Cosby and high-livin', out-of-touch sports and hip-hop stars, it's time to dip into the community's past.

Purple-tinted glasses

"If you don't know who Frederick Douglass is, there's something wrong," says Rasheed Abdullah, 19, a friend enlisted by Aaron to take the Reality Check.

Bogar chuckles; laugh lines, her only wrinkles, appear behind her purple-tinted glasses.

Abdullah scores a solid 15. This afternoon's bus stop quiz-takers are faring well compared to the average score of 12 -- 15-year-old Jasmine Priester knew 16 of the names, missing primarily cultural icons such as dancer Katherine Dunham and performer Paul Robeson (who, though a scholar and left-wing activist, is most widely recognized as the deep baritone singer of "Old Man River" in the late '30s musical "Showboat").

Like Abdullah, Priester volunteered for the "Reality Check" at Edward's behest. When Bogar rifles through her stack of 30-plus completed quizzes, she's surprised to see that far more young men have completed it than young women. She doesn't know why this is, but she knows that recently she'd only felt comfortable approaching the more standoffish girls after a peer introduced them.

As a young woman, Bogar didn't have anyone special to look up to. Her work is not inspired by a doting history teacher, but by her escape mechanisms -- as a youth in '50s South Carolina, she daydreamed of moving North, wrote poetry and envisioned clothing designs in her head to get through days of picking cotton. And when she shopped in the Woolworth's basement for fabric, she dreamed of being able to go upstairs to order a beverage at the store's whites-only caf/.

Her outreach work is couched in textile-related metaphors; the Reality Check-list is part of a copyrighted 30-or-so-page curriculum called "Ancestral Wrap," as in head-wrap (an African tradition, she notes) or, if a teacher wishes, they can drop the "w" to make it hipper for kids, Bogar says.

The program also includes "Creative Tips" such as having youth wrap their heads in fabric hats cut and crafted in the classroom and its own poetry/terminology: Chapter 14 puts forth the concept of "Knowledge Knots," which "form as you work through this project. Pass them on for future growth and binding."

Bogar says she presented the program to Mayor R.T. Rybak a few months ago. He offered encouragement and suggested contacting the new Central Library to possibly reserve a spot in the building to teach. However, Bogar says she is impatient and that "time is of the essence." So she decided to enact at least part of her program in the streets. "I ride the bus anyway," she shrugs.

Now, Bogar administers her Reality Check just down the street from where the Nicollet Mall Woolworth's once stood -- in 1982, Bogar displayed her lush fashions in the store's front display window after winning a local design contest.

She knows people tend to wince with fear as they pass the black teens who congregate at Downtown bus stops. However, Bogar insists that she had more problems with the Woolworth's mannequins than with the youth -- "Dressing those dummies

was the hardest thing I ever did," Bogar recalls, "I kept saying 'Stupid dummies!'"

She believes people fear the teens in part because they incorrectly interpret the meaning of their clothing. For example, Bogar sees head wraps or doo rags as symbols of the youth's conscious or unconscious desire to reconnect with their cultural history, not gang affiliation or such. "Cotton pickers wore head wraps," Bogar says, "What did Aunt Jemima wear?"

Bogar's own sons worry about their mom's bus-stop volunteerism, especially her evening shifts. A self-described "displaced retiree," Bogar shuttles between her offsprings' North and South Minneapolis homes when not reconnecting black youth to their roots.

Today, Bogar's sons can rest assured. She is administering her quiz in the late afternoon, and she's generated a buzz on the bench. People of all ages have gathered around and leaned in to see what this fetching woman and her pen are about. Even a grandmother, Leona Crandle, has taken the quiz. While bouncing her granddaughter Unique on her knee, she scores a solid 15. It's the result, she says of watching African American history shows on TV.

Abdullah also scored well but, like Edwards, is determined to increase his score. He asks Bogar if she operates a class he can attend or has a card so he can follow up.

Being, in essence, homeless, Bogar has no card to offer, and before she can figure out an alternate arrangement with Abdullah, a slurring young man approaches. As the two young men greet one another with an elaborate handshake, the slurring man, who happens to don a doo rag, makes a muttered request. Quickly, Abdullah wraps his arm around the young man's torso and physically ushers him away from Bogar, the bench and the grandmother. They talk, out of earshot, on the corner until the police disrupt their conservation.

Crandle, Unique, Priester and others board their buses; Bogar finds herself at an empty bench and realizes it's time to make her own way home.

Of course, she noticed the odd interaction, but chooses not to make much of it in conversation -- "I don't know what that was about," she says. Instead, she's eager to talk about her "Ancestral Wrap" plans. She enjoys street-quizzing, but she wants to get her program into the schools, and not just in Minneapolis, but nationwide.

Such ambitions may seem like a lot of work for a supposed retiree, but 63-year-old Bogar looks and acts closer to 40. What's her beauty secret? "I got my head wrapped tight," she says, placing her hands on the red, yellow, black and blue cap covering her crown.

Then Rosa Bagor boards the number 17, she has to get to her son's apartment before he returns from work; they share a key and he can't get in without her.