Rafe Esquith, who for 20 years has gotten amazing results teaching everything from algebra to Shakespeare to inner-city Los Angeles fifth graders, will make you rethink at least a few prejudices you may have had about education. Or at least, he made me do so. And that’s an achievement in itself.
Because he’s a public-school teacher, I assumed he’d complain about underfunding. Nope. “We always had lots of cash; we didn’t always spend it wisely, but the money was there,” he writes in There Are No Shortcuts, his fascinating book about his teaching career. Okay, I thought, then out of professional courtesy, he won’t tell tales out of school. Wrong again. (Which is one reason, by the way, that this memoir is as page-turning as a thriller.)
“They said, ‘Rafe, we don’t want you to teach Shakespeare, we want you to teach something academic,’” recalled Esquith of his early days. “Because I was a coward, that first year my class decided to do Thornton Wilder’s Our Town. And I didn’t call downtown to see if Thornton Wilder was academic. But the region superintendent came; she cried at the end when Emily died. And she came up to me and said, ‘Rafe, I’ve never seen Shakespeare done better.’”
Esquith was speaking at a PBS press conference for the excellent new P.O.V. documentary The Hobart Shakespeareans, which premieres Sept. 6 and was produced and directed by Mel Stuart, a Shakespeare buff and director of the original Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. This isn’t the first time the celebrated outside world has come to Esquith’s classroom, though. One regular visitor over the years has been Sir Ian McKellan, who in the film reads a short speech from Hamlet to the class, then tells them, “I know you work hard, and you understand every single word. And that can’t be said of all actors who do Shakespeare.”
Another false idea I had was that only especially bright ten-year-olds would be interested in staying after school every day to put on a full-length Shakespeare play at the end of the year. The truth is that Esquith, who among other distinctions has been honored with Oprah Winfrey’s Use Your Life award, an MBE from Queen Elizabeth and Disney’s Teacher of the Year, teaches not gifted students but anyone lucky enough to end up in his fifth-grade class at Hobart Elementary, a huge (almost 2,400 students) school where over 90 percent of the children come from uneducated low-income immigrant families who don’t speak English at home. (Most are from Latin America and Korea.)
“I do a sort of triage,” said Esquith. “You have kid one, the gift from God, the parents say, ‘How can I help?’ Then you have kid three, in serious trouble, and the parents say, ‘If you try to help my kid, we’re going to kill you.’ Most teachers spend their careers at one end or the other–they either love working with easy kids or spend all their time trying to control the incorrigible ones. My favorite kids are the kids in the middle–the average kid who kind of does their work but doesn’t realize how great they can be if someone spends a little time with them.”
What Esquith also does (and this may shock the sentimental) is refuse to waste time trying to teach those bottom students who don’t want to learn. Instead, he controls them to the extent that they don’t drag down the middle–who are then free to rise to the top if they choose to put in the work. And despite his international acclaim, Esquith is still assigned his share of troublemakers.
“I had an interesting first day when one of my students took all his clothes off,” Esquith shrugged at the press conference, shortly after the beginning of the school year. (At Hobart, like most schools in L.A.’s year-round system, that was in July.)
“Some children should be left behind,” he likes to say. On the other hand, he can see potential in children that other teachers don’t. In the P.O.V. film, one of Esquith’s young Shakespearean stars remembers the fourth-grade teacher who would dismiss questions with an irritated “you weren’t listening.”
“And I was listening,” the boy tells the camera in frustration. “I just didn’t get it. Rafe will explain it to me 500 times if he has to.” This is no exaggeration. In a remarkable scene, the film shows a roomful of ten-year-olds sobbing as they read in Huckleberry Finn that Huck has decided he’ll go to hell rather than turn in Jim as a slave. How were these young children so moved by a book that’s not normally taught until high school or (more typically) college? “What the film can’t show,” explained Esquith, “is me stopping, truly, every paragraph, going through things word by word. That kind of thing doesn’t bother me.”
Esquith also recalls with a laugh, on camera, the fourth-grade teacher’s warning about the boy who wasn’t listening–that he was unpredictable, maybe even dangerous: “I said, ‘He’s Hamlet!’”
Esquith generally uses the “some children should be left behind” line in connection with field trips. And here he really won me over. Because when my 16-year-old daughter was in public elementary school, she preferred staying home and reading to going on class trips–which indeed seemed like the same pointless exercises in running around and screaming I remembered from my own childhood. Most parents, and every teacher, thought my attitude was antisocial and bizarre. I assumed Esquith would too, since every year he takes his class on two major trips.
Again, no. “I saw other school groups in Washington, D.C. running around without any concept of what they were looking at,” he said with distaste. “They were jumping on the new World War II memorial and skateboarding across it–I’m serious.”
Esquith’s approach to field trips is rather different. His first field trip each year is to the Hollywood Bowl–after each child has demonstrated his ability to participate by writing a report on every composer featured at that evening’s performance, learning and playing parts of the pieces on a musical instrument, and demonstrating (during a dry-run in class, listening to a CD) the ability to sit quietly and politely for two hours listening to classical music.
If they can’t do all this, they’re left behind, but not unkindly. “I explain that there are many things they can’t do yet: they don’t drive a car, date, or vote,” Esquith writes in his book, which I was surprised to find as page-turning as a thriller. “And they don’t do these things not because they’re bad people but because they need to acquire certain skills before they’re allowed to do them.”
As a result, Esquith’s groups of ten-year-olds are so unusually well-behaved on public outings that astonished strangers often insist on picking up the tab when they see them at lunch. Occasionally, they take another tactic. While buying tickets at the Empire State building, Esquith heard a ticket-taker approach his quiet group of kids and loudly exhort them that “You’re only gonna be young once, so have lotsa fun and don’t worry about bein’ good.”
The kids tolerated the man politely. But when Esquith came back, one girl reassured her teacher. “Rafe,” she said, “that guy takes tickets in a line for a tourist attraction. You think we’re gonna listen to him?”
–Catherine Seipp is a writer in California who publishes the weblog Cathy’s World. She is an NRO contributor.