Student teacher brings a fourth R to class: royalty

It's a tradition at Maplewood Elementary for two students to journey to the principal's office each morning, lean in toward the microphone, and lead their peers in the pledge of allegiance and the school song.

Recently, in this small town near Missouri's Ozark plateau, a pair of Judy Christoff's third-graders began with a royal flourish, sending a startling greeting through the public address system. "E karo!" they declared, or "good morning" in the native tongue of their student teacher - who just happens to be a princess.

Indeed, Nigerian Taiye Olagbegi-Tokun, a thirty-something senior at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, is a child of the late King Olateru Olagbegi.

She grew up with her numerous siblings (the king had some two dozen wives) in a walled compound in Owo - a sort of city-state loosely affiliated with the Yoruba tribe - which included a palace, a church, a school, tennis courts, a swimming pool, and squash courts.

When Ms. Christoff announced at an open house for parents the day before school started that her new student teacher was actually Her Royal Highness, everyone asked the same question: What is she doing in Dittmer?

"I thought it was closer to St. Louis," says the princess with a sheepish grin. Instead, it turned out to be on the fringe of the city's farthest-flung suburbs.

Ms. Olagbegi-Tokun left Nigeria to see the world in 1989, and, aside from a brief stop in Chicago, she has been in St. Louis ever since. She is married to a fellow Nigerian who's in the pharmaceutical business, and they have a young daughter. One reason they settled in St. Louis is to be close to her twin sister.

Olagbegi-Tokun chose Maple Grove for student teaching almost at random. Everyone at the school seems happy she did. "She's wonderful. The kids love her," Christoff says. "I've been spoiled. I won't take another student teacher unless she's a princess."

Olagbegi-Tokun returns to Nigeria once a year and e-mails almost every day, but after more than a decade in the United States, she says she is "Americanized" and purposely plays down the royal connection. She's only worn a crown to school once - a cardboard one at Halloween. She carried in some native costumes for show-and-tell instead of wearing them, and insists on being called Ms. Tai, not Your Majesty. And hold the diamond-encrusted baubles; an apple will do.

Still, "the kids want to know all about it," says Olagbegi-Tokun, and she is happy to oblige, using a bit of regal bait-and-switch to transform curiosity about her nobility into sessions on Nigerian culture and history.

"With my upbringing, being around so many brothers and sisters, I wanted to share my wonderful heritage and experience with other kids. I asked myself - [in] what type of career can I do that? Education is most appropriate," she says.

Despite being from a very large family, Olagbegi-Tokun says she understands the importance of giving each child individual attention. "We had quality time with our dad - every kid," she insists, describing a family dinner table that looked like a school cafeteria. The children attended school just outside the compound, but the family also had a regular story time, in which the king would recite traditional tales and read from storybooks - some of which American children would recognize, she says.

All of which might help explain the natural rapport she appears to enjoy with her third-grade charges, who are intrigued by her royal status. "It's cool having a princess for a teacher," Ryan Bockskopf says with a smile. "We're the only class that gets one, you know."

Olagbegi-Tokun will likely remain in the St. Louis area to teach when she graduates, but plans eventually to return to Nigeria to open a school.

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