These days, when they spend an afternoon together shopping at Prince George's Plaza or eating at the McDonald's in Adams Morgan, Robert Allen and his 24-year-old son, Sean, frequently find themselves in a fix. They'll hear a child from behind say, "Hey, Mr. Allen," and both Mr. Allens turn their heads.
The elder Allen, 57, a sixth-grade teacher at Magnolia Elementary School in Lanham, and his son, an art teacher at Central High School in Capitol Heights, have become such an integral part of their students' lives that even outside the classroom, youths tend to flock to them.
"The students love him. He's the greatest," Johnny Law said of Robert Allen, who taught Law's son, Trayvonte Clover, last year. "If my son is having problems with me, he could go to him. If I'm a little too hard on him, he'll go to Mr. Allen, and Mr. Allen will call me and say, 'Hey, lighten up a little bit,' or, 'Hey, put some fire underneath him.' "
Students and parents alike call the Allens classroom favorites. They paint portraits of the Allens as trustworthy, engaging and loving. The pair have become fatherly figures in the lives of their students -- or more accurately in the case of Sean Allen, a big brother.
"I make myself available to them because they have no one else," Robert Allen said one balmy afternoon on the picnic benches outside his classroom at Magnolia. "I'm the father, the mother, the uncle, the aunt, the counselor -- I'm everybody. I'm whoever they need me to be at the time, and they know that."
To hear the Allens talk about their passion for teaching as well as the workdays that sometimes last 16 hours and the low salaries that come with the job, it is clear that their commitment offers hope to their students in a school system that has suffered charges of corruption and chronic under-performance.
It is not unusual for a child to follow a parent into the same profession, and interim Prince George's County schools chief Howard A. Burnett said such teachers often thrive in the profession and stick with it longer than those who don't have a family connection. "They've learned early on from their parents," Burnett said. "They've seen it done the right way. They have the role model."
But male teachers in any school system are relatively rare. In Prince George's, men make up 29 percent of the teaching staff. So thin are the ranks of male teachers in the system that Bowie State University recently awarded the county a grant to recruit more black men to become teachers.
Despite their loyalty to teaching, neither father nor son had early aspirations to join the profession.
For decades, Robert Allen, an area native, had dreamed of catching a break as a rhythm and blues singer and songwriter. In the 1970s, he was an up-and-comer, working with singer-producer Van McCoy, who gained fame during the disco era with "The Hustle." Soon, Allen shifted his attention to musical theater, playing a lead character in a local production of "The Wiz."
Allen carried his musical talents with him to Magnolia, where for the past few years at graduation he has sung "Believe in Yourself" from "The Wiz."
"I've found that a lot of kids at this particular point in time do not really believe that they can do things," he said. "The parents always say to me, 'Gee, you sound so good. Why do you waste your time teaching these kids?' But it's not a waste of time to me -- not at all. These kids need me. They need teachers who care about them."
Sean Allen, too, pursued artistic ambitions before choosing teaching. After graduating from Suitland High School, he attended the Pratt Institute, a prestigious New York art college, where he studied to be an illustrator of children's books and hoped to work for the Walt Disney Co. But after tutoring children a few hours a week in college, Allen decided they were the people he most wanted to spend time with.
So he took a job teaching art at Central High two years ago. In his spare time, he illustrates children's books, most recently one about a child's fourth-grade experience. Robert Allen said he is proud of Sean for dedicating his life to teaching.
"He has a love for it, evidently, and one that I never knew that he really had," he said. "It's wonderful to see that in him."
Students come to Sean Allen not only for ideas for art projects but also for guidance on college admissions and advice about romance.
"Mr. Allen was always there no matter what time it was," said Elyse Tyler, 17, who recently graduated from Central High and will attend St. Mary's College of Maryland in the fall. "He was always there for good advice, for famous quotes that he knew -- for any little thing."
His connection with his students mirrors the one his father has with his students. So strong is the teacher-student bond in Robert Allen's classroom that his sixth-graders cling to him as he roams Magnolia's hallways.
One morning in April, when Robert Allen was teaching his health lesson, he received a phone call and found out that his stepfather had died. Just after taking the call, Allen returned to the lesson, but one boy kept talking, leading the usually composed Allen to snappily ask, "Will you please be quiet?"
After a few minutes, Allen recalled, he explained to his students what had happened. The boy raised his hand and said, "Do you need me to come sit beside you?" He dragged his chair to Allen's right side, and the other students followed, forming a semicircle around their teacher.
"It was the greatest feeling I've ever had," Allen said. "I've never felt so much love like that before, and I'll never forget it."
Staff writer Nick Anderson contributed to this report.