ME and Ophelia

Monday, October 13, 2003

Be nice, work hard

On 6 October Rojisan blogged about the extraordinary Rafe Esquith.

With high hopes and inspiration, Roj decided to "throw his googlejuice" behind this awe inspiring person to see how far he could swim against the tide of book sellers and book reviewers and other "non-content" hits. It has worked. Content is now on Google's front page.

Roj hopes his readers will learn about Rafe Esquith - and be inspired. Here, is why -

The Hobart Shakespeareans:

It's a May evening in Koreatown in central Los Angeles, a neighbourhood remembered for the 1992 riots and forgotten by prosperity. If anything, things have gotten worse for this mostly immigrant community besieged by crime and poverty.

But inside Hobart Elementary School, tonight is St. Crispin's Eve and Henry V is calling on his troops to unite against the French. "And Crispin Crispian shall ne'er go by, from this day to the ending of the world, but we in it shall be remembered, we few, we happy few, we band of brothers...." It is one of the most spine-tingling speeches in the English language delivered with a force belied by Wayne Kepner's youth. Sitting in the audience, the acclaimed Shakespearean director Sir Peter Hall is moved to tears.

He wasn't the only one. So many people started to cry during this year's performance that director and teacher Rafe Esquith remembers ten-year-old Kepner telling him that he wanted to stop and say, "Hey - it's just a play!"

But perhaps the audience recognized that for Rafe Esquith and his 5th and 6th grade students, performing Henry V was only part of a far more powerful drama that has been unfolding year after year at Hobart, one where Shakespeare literally transforms lives.

"No one has any expectations for them," Esquith says of the students who crowd with boundless enthusiasm into his small classroom. "Eighty percent come from alcoholic families, nobody has two parents at home, and nobody speaks English as a first language."

When Esquith reasoned that studying Shakespeare after school was the ideal way to improve their language skills, the school board asked him to reconsider and do something "academic" instead. Thankfully, their advice was ignored. Esquith's class now reads eight full plays every year, going through each one line by line, examining every allusion and symbol.

And of course, there is the annual production, which is open to any child in the school. So impressed was Sir Peter Hall with Esquith's students that he cast them as fairies in his production of A Midsummer Night's Dream in Los Angeles this summer. Previous classes performed in England with the Royal Shakespeare Company, and actors Sir Ian McKellen and Hal Holbrook are passionate patrons.

"These kids can learn," says Esquith. "I've got kids at Harvard and Yale and they did not get there because of affirmative action: they got there because they have 1,400 on the SAT, and they're brilliant scholars." They also get there because the 45-year-old Esquith spends almost every waking hour working to give them the opportunities and the mentoring that "catch them up" to middle class children.

"I really started to love learning," recalls Matt Parlow, now in this third year at Yale Law School. "Rafe was so charismatic and so personable, I just remember meeting him and saying, I want to be part of this program - whatever it takes."

What it "takes" is starting class at 6:30 a.m. and finishing at 5 in the afternoon. It also takes studying everything from classical guitar to chemistry - and studying hard. Esquith takes the increasingly unusual view that success comes from instilling a strong work ethic and not from trying to convince the kids that learning is always fun or easy. As the large sign above the chalkboard reminds the children every day, "there are no shortcuts".

And 5th and 6th grade with Esquith is no shortcut either. Even though his class scores in the top 10 percent in the country on the standardized tests, two years is simply not enough time to acquire the skills and discipline to get into college, says Esquith. So on Saturday mornings, he started what he believes is his most important program, "Wake Up with Will," a combination of two hours of Shakespeare, Ibsen, and Chekhov, and two hours of SAT preparation taken by over 50 of his former students.

"He makes such a difference for these kids, he gives them such opportunities," says Mindy Jones of the Ahmanson Foundation, which normally funds only independent schools. After listening to Esquith and visiting his class, the foundation broke its own rules in order to give Esquith a capital grant.

For his devotion to his students, Esquith won Disney's Teacher of the Year Award in 1992, and the resulting publicity helped a lot with fundraising. Nonetheless, Esquith and his wife are broke, spending every spare dollar on their programs. Esquith rises at 4:30 a.m. each weekday to walk to school. His family doesn't own a car, and after returning home and eating a quick dinner, Esquith gives tutorials to help raise money for his class.

Asked where he gets such superhuman energy, he replies simply: "My former students literally write me letters every day saying I saved their lives."

There Are No Shortcuts -
Changing the World One Kid at a Time

Award winning teacher and inspiring speaker
"There Are No Shortcuts. In a world hell bent on quick fixes, this may be a hard lesson to learn. But Rafe Esquith, an award-winning grade school teacher, is living proof that patience, understanding, love and imagination can work miracles" - Lavin

"Rafe Esquith is one of that rare breed to teachers whose influence extends well beyond the classroom. His remarkable career as a fifth and sixth grade teacher in Hobart Elementary School stands as a testament to what passion, imagination, and energy can achieve" - Sir Christopher Meyer at the presentation of an honorary MBE to Rafe on behalf of Her Majesty the Queen

Be nice, work hard
"I used to be a mean kid. I wasn't much of a hard worker. But that's two things this class teaches you - be nice, work hard. This program has changed me" - former student of Ralph Esquith MBE.

# posted by Ingrid J. Jones @ 10/13/2003
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