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1/15/2013 1:50:00 PM
Teacher an 'island of peace' at inner city Portland high school
Catholic Sentinel photo by Ed Langlois
Rafael Bobenrieth, a teacher at Roosevelt High in North Portland, has a reputation as smart and calm.
Catholic Sentinel photo by Ed Langlois
Rafael Bobenrieth, a teacher at Roosevelt High in North Portland, has a reputation as smart and calm.
Ed Langlois
Of the Catholic Sentinel

On Saturday mornings, science teacher Rafael Bobenrieth tutors Roosevelt High students at his home. On occasion, you’ll find him marshaling youths to evening lectures, or to the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry.

Bobenrieth, a 41-year-old member of St. Andrew Parish in Northeast Portland, worked for Nike for four years. His energy and technological talent were helping him move through the ranks. Then came a point when frequent travel and stress made no sense.

He had long thought of teaching and so started volunteering in Portland public schools. “It was an eye-opening experience,” he explains. “There were big challenges, but it spoke to me. It was a valuable struggle.”

After eight years at Roosevelt in North Portland, Bobenrieth is glad he changed careers.  

He grew up outside the nation’s capital, the youngest of eight children born to a Chilean physician and an Italian nurse. His father was a public health administrator who worked for the Pan-American Health Association.

His childhood was happy. There was always something fun and someone to play with. He recalls big dinners at home with cheerful crowds of friends invited.

His parents passed along a keen sense of public service. He recalls his mother leaving for the nursing home at 5 a.m. and his father taking great care in public health work. Each Sunday, the family attended Mass and on Mondays the children went to religious education class.

Family life changed when Bobenrieth was 10. His 18-year-old brother died in a car crash. That shook everyone’s faith, especially his mother’s. The family’s church attendance tapered off.

But Bobenrieth’s formation in scripture and church social teaching would last. The scene from Matthew 25 — “As often as you did it for one of the least of these, you did it for me” — was in his bones.

A graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy who majored in physics, Bobenrieth entered the military because he was eager to serve and to build his character. In the Navy, he was a nuclear submarine officer and at the same time earned a master’s degree from Catholic University.

He and physician wife Susie moved to Portland in 1998 after he left active duty. Over the next few years, they bought a house, had two children and got a dog.  

When the bravado of business lost its appeal, Bobenrieth returned to school, earning a master’s degree in teaching from Lewis and Clark College.

For his first job interview at Roosevelt, he showed up in black suit and tie. But his clean cut and formal manner left an impression on the committee, including veteran English teacher Catherine Theriault. She wondered if such a man could be happy in the sometimes chaotic inner-city high school.

Theriault says Bobenrieth not only fit in, but became an example of kindness, understanding, diplomacy and rigorous ethics. She noticed him going to lengths to make learning enjoyable and successful for students. That included using new technology.  

“He is genuinely as good as he seems,” says Theriault. “He has an enormous amount of integrity. I respect him immensely. He’s also a very smart man.”

Bobenrieth teaches ninth grade science and, helped by his own multilingual upbringing, instructs students of any age for whom English is a second language. He also teaches Spanish.   

He aspires to be “an educator in the broadest sense of the word — helping kids find their passions.” An early riser who shows up promptly for appointments, he puts in the time to create lessons that show the relevance of science.  

He naturally uses words like “copious” and “acrimony.” It’s not showing off, but is the result of good education, lots of reading and the scientist’s desire to be precise.  

Bobenrieth is naturally even-keeled. But to motivate and direct students he sometimes must call on inner reserves of passion and even indignation.
Some students, he knows, suffer unstable if not traumatic home lives that make it hard to concentrate. He admires their persistence under such circumstances, but knows that he must keep guiding them toward excellence.  

Bobenrieth has never felt unsafe at Roosevelt. He agrees with students who say the school feels like a sanctuary from an insane world. There are occasional outbursts. But as if it’s a law of nature, disorder is always countered by students who soar, like the boy from a working class family accepted at Brown University.  

Though Roosevelt has made measured progress, Bobenrieth still hears the bad reports about his school. He realizes standardized test scores are low. He can’t deny the social problems that begin at home and come to the classroom. But he realizes the troubles are not the whole story, and that human goodness and advancement abide.  

He’s hopeful about the world, in large part because of the “indomitable spirit” he sees in students and faculty. He cites one Roosevelt teacher who took out a $25,000 second mortgage on her home to pay for a student drama troupe to travel to Nebraska.

Social justice continues to be a central principle for the Bobenrieth family. Susie tends patients at the Providence Gateway Medical Plaza, which serves many people with low income. Rafael, with other Roosevelt teachers, has spoken on behalf of students at immigration hearings. He played a part in saving Gately Academy, a Northeast Portland school for special needs students. His son attends.

Bobenrieth loves being a father, a vocation he says is full of joy and challenges. He coaches his daughter’s soccer team and is himself a defender on an over-40 men’s  squad. Soccer appeals to him because of the powerful teamwork.

At school and in church, Bobenrieth’s lively mind is not satisfied only with fulfilling duties week by week. He continues to explore big ideas, like the interplay of faith and science. He sees the two spheres fitting together, approaching truth from different angles.

“The more I learn about science and scientific findings, it becomes a revelation of faith and God’s design,” he says. He sees evolution, for example, as a powerful and graceful means of divine creation.  

Deborah Peterson, a Portland State University professor of educational leadership, is former Roosevelt principal. She says Bobenrieth’s strong core values allow him to be “an island of peace in a storm.” His interior life, Peterson explains, somehow allows him to deeply respect students and peers.
Peterson concludes: “He knows you start with the precious human in front of you.”

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