A documentary about Rafe Esquith, fifth-grade teacher a large inner-city school, inspires his students to lead extraordinary lives, despite language barriers and poverty.
September 6, 2005 | Documentaries today may be giving us what we hunger for. The film March of the Penguins, which reveals the birds’ harsh and glorious Antarctic mating season, has become the second highest grossing documentary in history, behind only Fahrenheit 9/11. Another documentary, Mad Hot Ballroom, takes us inside a ballroom dancing competition for New York City’s fifth graders. A third film, The Hobart Shakespeareans (premiering on PBS Tuesday, Sept. 6), made by filmmaker Mel Stuart, follows Rafe Esquith’s fifth-grade class in inner-city Los Angeles as they learn to perform a full-text Hamlet by the end of their school year.
Whether it’s penguins or fifth graders, all these documentaries are about goodness, dedication and purpose, as well as respect and treating others well. There’s something joyful and painfully touching when we see the life force in action with purpose.
Rafe Esquith leads his fifth graders through an uncompromising curriculum of English, mathematics, geography and literature. His classroom mottos are “Be nice. Work hard,” and “There are no shortcuts.” Every student performs in a full-length Shakespeare play. Despite language barriers and poverty, many of these Hobart Shakespeareans move on to attend outstanding colleges.
Esquith, who grew up in Los Angeles and attended the city’s public schools, has taught fifth grade at Hobart Boulevard Elementary for over 20 years. “I don’t want my students to be ordinary,” he says. “I want them to be extraordinary because I know that they are. If a 10-year-old, who doesn’t speak English at home, can step in front of you and do a scene from Shakespeare, then there is nothing that he cannot accomplish.”
TERRENCE MCNALLY: Rafe, what led you to teaching and to Hobart Elementary?
RAFE ESQUITH: I became a teacher because my father taught me that a life without service is a wasted life. I found I had a knack for teaching, I taught at a middle-class school for two years. Great kids, but they didn’t need me. I was challenged by a principal to come to Hobart School, where there are 2,400 children, and I realized that we were a perfect match. These were kids who want a way out, and after many years of teaching, I figured out a way to help them get out.
Mel, what led you to this documentary?
MEL STUART: Luck. That’s a very important part of being a filmmaker. You have to be lucky. I was read in the paper that Rafe had won an award for teaching inner-city schoolchildren, nine and 10 years old, a curriculum that included performing Shakespeare. I’m a Shakespeare nut, have been since I was 13 and saw Henry V with Olivier. So I called Rafe and asked him, “What play are you doing next year?” and he said, “Hamlet.” I said, “Perfect, that’s the one I want to do.”
I was initially attracted to the film because of the Hamlet hook, but when I watched it, I saw so much more. What did you know before you decided to do it, and what surprised you?
MEL STUART: I went there planning to do Hamlet, but it turned out, they were playing baseball to learn to be American citizens, they were simulating a money economy in the classroom, they were reading the most incredible books. Rafe was guiding them through the great books of our literature.
MEL STUART: Fifth-graders reading Catcher in the Rye and Malcolm X, or Huckleberry Finn. You see the effect it has on these kids. I only wish that my own children could have gone to Rafe’s class. I made the film because I want the whole nation to know what Rafe can do with children that don’t have the background and the money that other children in this country have.
Rafe, in the film and in your book you mention a turning point, when you realized that you were a pretty good teacher and you were a teacher kids liked, but that you weren’t making the difference you needed to make.
RAFE ESQUITH: You’re too kind. The truth is, I was failing, because the real measure of a teacher is not that the kids like him or that they do well at the tests at the end of the year. The real measure is where are these children five years from now, 10 years from now? What am I giving to these children that they’ll be using for the rest of their lives?
One night when I was really ready to give it up, my wife Barbara said, “Rafe you ought to re-read To Kill a Mockingbird.” In Atticus Finch, I found the model I was looking for. Early in that book his children ask, “Are we gonna win?” Finch says no. But he doesn’t run from the courtroom, he goes in and fights the fight anyway, because he believes strongly in Tom Robinson’s innocence and he’s going to speak the truth.
My classroom is that courtroom. I feel all the time that I’m a very ordinary human being, but what separates good teachers from other teachers is good teachers don’t give up. I tell the children not to give up. That means I can’t give up either.
Late in the documentary, you say, “I’ve won these awards, I’ve written this book, I’ve got this documentary, I could make more money doing something else, and I’ve been here 20 years now … But for 20 years I’ve been telling them this is important. For me to walk away would make me a hypocrite.”
RAFE ESQUITH: Well, we always say, “No child left behind.” I see a lot of teachers now who win an award or two, and they write their book and they get their website, and then they leave. Talk about no child left behind, they leave them all behind! I can’t do that.
What are some of the things you’ve come up with over the years? It’s looks like a totally unique world inside your classroom.
RAFE ESQUITH: You’re right, we’ve created a different culture — a culture that’s different from the neighborhood in which these kids live, a culture different from society. We do it through character development. We have the children develop a code of behavior. Right now I’m not in the classroom, but I’ll come back in an hour after I’m done talking to you, and the kids will be behaving perfectly because they don’t behave for me. A lot of children try to please adults. I don’t want them to please me, I’m a very small part of the story.
The real heroes in this film are the children who have the courage to walk the path that I’ve laid out for them. That means a push for excellence. Our society doesn’t value excellence, and I don’t think excellence is a switch you can throw on at 3 p.m.: Hey, now it’s Shakespeare time, now we’re gonna be excellent! I want them to have a code of excellence in the way they approach their mathematics and their literature and the way they write and the way they speak in front of people, and the way they play baseball and travel on the road. It’s not a dog-and-pony show, it’s a way of life in Room 56.
If I were a young teacher at your school, and I said, “My God, I walked through the neighborhood to get here this morning, I’m looking at what’s around here, I’m looking at the way kids were out in the parking lot, how can I possibly do what you do?” How do you transform them? Why do your kids buy in?
RAFE ESQUITH: First of all, lesson one, you are the role model, and you have to be the person you want the children to be. I want my kids to work hard, so I’ve got to be the hardest worker they’ve ever seen. It’s not a question of preaching. I’m at that school at 6 in the morning, and right away, the kids go, “My God, this guy is really gonna work hard, so I have to work hard.” I don’t raise my voice to these kids, I don’t humiliate these children. I’m a tough teacher, but if I want them to be nice to each other, I better be the nicest guy they ever met. So rule number one, be the person you want the children to be.
Mel, I’ve heard you say that this is one of your favorite two or three projects of your career. That’s saying a lot. Why?
MEL STUART: Number one, it is the most cinÃ©ma vÃ©ritÃ© film I’ve ever made. Nothing was re-enacted. Everything was the only take. Rafe has that incredible quality which he’s shy to admit, he can talk and walk at the same time. In our business it’s very rare to find somebody who can go about doing what he’s doing and still talk to you. He’s doing his business, and the kids don’t care and the class goes on, and you have a tremendous sense of reality. I never had to ask Rafe a question twice, the right answer always came out of his mouth. It’s a very rare art, and Rafe has it. There were no re-takes.
How did you choose to shoot it with Rafe occasionally speaking directly to camera?
MEL STUART: No, he doesn’t talk to camera. He talks to me, and that’s a very important difference. I don’t want him to talk to the camera, because first of all, it’s a very hard thing to look at a camera and be yourself. Most of the time Rafe’s walking this way and that around the classroom, and he has a thought and just hits me with it. If he hit the camera with it, it would look false. It’s just the thoughts coming out of his head, but always on the nose.
And we mustn’t forget how important all the children are in this. There was a moment when I was interviewing the little boy who plays Hamlet, and I ask him, “What did you think of Huckleberry Finn? What kind of experience was that for you?” And he said, “Well, I thought the characters were interesting. They held a mirror up to nature.” A 10-year-old Mexican kid just used that as a phrase. It blew me away! That was just a wonderful moment for me.
A point you make even more in your book than in the documentary, Rafe, is the value of reading above all else. In teaching to change their lives, reading is something you find enormously important.
RAFE ESQUITH: We have a Wall of Fame in my classroom. We have all the former students up who are in college now. I tell the children, there are a lot of different kinds of kids up there. There are jocks and there are artists and there are wild kids and there are shy kids. But the one thing they all have in common is they all read for pleasure and they all read well.
One of the things that’s wrong with the schools today is that in throwing basal readers at the children, and getting them to take all their tests and everything — has anybody ever asked the children how they feel about the reading program? The kids hate it. They despise the reading program. The companies will say, “Oh, but test scores are going up.” Their goals have to do with fluency and speed. My goals have to do with pleasure and passion. There’s a scene in the film when the kids are reading Huck Finn, and they’re absolutely in tears as Huck has to decide between heaven and hell, whether or not he’s going to turn Jim in ….
That is very powerful. Ten-year-olds together in a school classroom coming to a point in the book, and they cannot control their emotions.
RAFE ESQUITH: That’s what reading is supposed to be. We just finished Tom Sawyer and kids were hysterically laughing as Tom hoodwinks his friends into whitewashing the fence. My class’s reading scores are so high because my kids love to read. They read all the time. And it’s not because I’m such a good teacher, but I put great books in front of them. We forget Mark Twain’s a great product. Children read him in the 1800s.
Most kids won’t get these books until years later, if at all. And these are not just fifth graders. Most of them are either Asian or Latino, and in their homes English is not the first language.
RAFE ESQUITH: There’s a key to that also. When they get thrown Steinbeck or Twain in the eighth or ninth grade, and are told, go home and read this, many children are going to home environments where it’s just not conducive for reading. That’s why we read these books together in the class. When people say to me, gosh Rafe, this takes a long time, I say well so what? I’m not in a hurry. When I say there are no shortcuts, that’s for teachers too. We can’t look for these simplistic solutions to complicated problems.
You titled your book There are No Shortcuts. You have it spelled out on a banner in the front of your classroom. Where did that phrase come from and what does it mean to you, to your kids, and to the larger American society?
RAFE ESQUITH: I’m a learner and I once took kids to the Hollywood Bowl to see the great cellist Lynn Harrell play, and Lynn loved my class so much he pulled his kids out of private school in Beverly Hills and put them at Hobart.
There’s an endorsement!
RAFE ESQUITH: It was pretty funny to have these two white kids at Hobart. One of them wound up at Vassar and one of them wound up at Princeton, and they’re still in touch with me all the time.
We went backstage to visit Lynn and a young cellist looked up at Lynn Harrell, who’s 6 foot 5, and the little kid said, “You know, I play the cello, Mr. Harrell, but it doesn’t sound like that, how do you do it?” And Lynn just looked down and said, “Well, there are no shortcuts.” I was in about my fifth or sixth year of teaching, and I said, “Boy, that encapsulates everything I’m trying to get across to these children.”
It’s almost like a small tribe who share a certain set of iconic rules.
RAFE ESQUITH: Being in Los Angeles and loving basketball, I always used to tell the children, there’s nothing magic about Magic Johnson. This talented man worked for hundreds of thousands of hours in lonely gyms when there weren’t people cheering him on to create that magic. There are no shortcuts.
You openly tell the children you want a better life for them than the one their school, their neighborhoods or even their families offer. On field trips you put them up at hotels and feed them at restaurants. “There’s a scene in the bus on the way back from Washington, when you address them about how they feel about going back to their normal lives. What’s your thinking behind all this? Do you get flak for it?
RAFE ESQUITH: I don’t get flak for it; as a matter of fact I’ve got 60 kids showing up at 6:30 in the morning.
I meant from other teachers or politically correct folk.
RAFE ESQUITH: Sure, I teach with 125 teachers. Most of them are incredibly nice to me, and eight or 10 believe I’m the anti-Christ. And that’s OK. The best teacher who ever lived was Socrates and they killed him.
RAFE ESQUITH: So if they’re not shooting at me sometimes I’m probably not doing anything right. I do want a better life for these kids and surely, to live in a neighborhood where you hear gunfire at night is not the best thing to envision in your future. There are other children in America who don’t have to go to bed with that. I’m just trying to level the playing field.
“The Hobart Shakespeareans” premieres on PBS Tuesday, Sept. 6. Check your local listings for times.