Last fall, during a visit to Los Angeles, I had the opportunity to sit in for the day at Room 56 at Hobart Elementary, where Rafe Esquith, a man who has been described as “the best teacher” in America, has presided over the fifth grade class and his so-called Hobart Shakespeareans for over three decades—until he was recently accused of misconduct and removed from the classroom. I must confess that as I watched Esquith in action, and learned more about the extent of his work with students—the Saturday classes; the pricey violins (two for each student, one to practice on at home, the other for school) paid for with the proceeds of a private foundation; the way he commandeered space at Hobart so that professional musicians could come to class after school and teach his students; the travel, including annual Thanksgiving trips to Washington DC and summers at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival—I kept wondering:
How does he get away with it?
In an era of epic litigiousness, when a field trip to a museum requires forms filled out in triplicate, how has this man shown hundreds, perhaps thousands, of poor Latino and Asian students this country, over the course of decades, seemingly without complaint or censure?
I guess we now know at least part of the answer to my question. If, and when, Rafe Esquith is exonerated of allegations that began when he was accused of making an off-color joke while reading Mark Twain to his students, neither Rafe, as he is widely known by everyone, including his students, nor Room 56, will ever be the same. (He has since been accused of abusing—or was it pushing?—a boy 40 years ago when Esquith was a teenaged camp counselor.) The LAUSD is also investigating his foundation, the eponymous Hobart Shakespeareans, which had revenues of $435,000 in 2013; travel for his students was the largest single expenditure for each of the last three years. (Esquith serves a director of the foundation and his wife Barbara Tong as president; neither collects a salary.)
If Esquith is ever allowed to return to his classroom—and if he can bring himself to do so—it is highly unlikely that he will be able to resume business as usual in Room 56. So, I thought it might be useful to hear from one of his students, what it was like to be not just one of Esquith’s students, but a Hobart Shakespearean.
I called Rudy De La Cruz who says that if it weren’t for Esquith he would have joined a street gang in L.A. Instead, De La Cruz recently graduated from New York University. Among Hobart Shakespeareans who have gone on to become engineers, teachers, doctors and lawyers, De La Cruz may be the first one who was inspired to become an actor. (While I was writing this post, I received several emails about Esquith, written by former students, and appended them to the bottom of this post.)
De La Cruz is still waiting tables between acting gigs in New York City. He tried to put into perspective the role that Esquith and Hobart Shakespeareans had played in his life. Hobart Shakespeareans, in fact, no longer refers just to the fifth graders and their annual production; it is what the alums who come back year after year for SAT prep, more Shakespeare and just to visit with their former teacher call themselves.
“I’m going to meet with producers, with costume designers for the new show,” he explained of a new TV role he just clinched. Its his “shot” at getting a coveted Screen Actors Guild union card. “But the experience pales in comparison to the wonder and excitement of that Shakespeare play,” De La Cruz says, referring to his performance as the Earl of Kent in King Lear, at age 9.
“The biggest crime is that his kids were robbed of the opportunity to do Shakespeare,” says De La Cruz.
For decades, producing a Shakespeare play has been the culminating experience for Esquith’s fifth graders. This spring, Esquith’s students were abruptly told that their production of A Winter’s Tale, for which they had worked all year after school and sometimes on Saturdays, would not go forward. The quality of the Hobart productions is so fine, it caught the attention of the Royal Shakespeare Co. and the renowned actor, Sir Ian McKellan, who has become a patron of the Hobart Shakespeareans and who regularly attends the productions when he is in Los Angeles.
Today, Rudy De La Cruz is 5’9” and over 200 lbs of pure muscle; he was a heavy-weight wrestling champion in high school, and kept up his wrestling as an NYU drama student even as he juggled classes, rehearsals, performances and part-time work. He is one of hundreds—if not thousands—of students who say that Esquith changed their lives; though he thinks he is the only one who is aspiring to be a professional actor.
I first met De La Cruz several months ago, long before the current scandal, in a Manhattan coffee shop; I wanted to learn more about why Esquith has been called the “best teacher” in America. I wrote a post about the teaching lessons KIPP, the charter-school chain, borrowed from Esquith, and those it ignored, and was getting ready for a trip to Los Angeles where I planned to visit one of Esquith’s classes. (I had planned to return in May to see the class’s production of A Winter’s Tale.)
De La Cruz showed up at our meeting carrying a copy of the Bully Pulpit, the biography of Teddy Roosevelt by Doris Kearns Goodwin, tucked under his arm. “It was the first time a man said ‘let’s preserve Yellowstone,’ and thanks to Rafe, I know why,” says De La Cruz, recalling his fifth grade trip out West with Esquith and his classmate.
De La Cruz is not only the first member of his family of Guatemalan immigrants to graduate from college, he is the first to finish high school; and all of it, he attributes to the year he spent in Esquith’s fifth grade class and the mentoring he got from Esquith in the years that followed.
The Bully Pulpit reminds him of many lessons he learned from Esquith. William Taft, is a level-three thinker, he explains, referring to Richard Kohlberg’s three-levels of moral development. “Taft is motivated by his father and wants to please him. He doesn’t waste time on outside reading. Whereas Teddy Roosevelt is constantly reading, he has his personal library. Yet he is known for being slightly eccentric. Esquith teaches kids to be like Teddy Roosevelt,” says De La Cruz
Like most of Esquith’s students at Hobart, De La Cruz grew up poor and directionless. He was a young child when his mother suddenly disappeared one day; De La Cruz later learned that, an addict and a dealer, his mom was doing time on a drugs charge. His parents were divorced and De La Cruz wound up living for a time with his father, who worked odd hours as a dishwasher. As young De La Cruz started fifth grade, gang life on the street was beginning to look pretty appealing.
Like many of the kids who landed in Room 56, De La Cruz found class with Esquith fun. A brainy kid, De La Cruz did pretty well without working hard. So, he couldn’t figure out why Esquith was constantly leaning on him, never satisfied with his performance.
“He was always pushing me to improve myself,” says De La Cruz.
Toward the end of the school year, De La Cruz’s grades fell just shy of the cut-off for joining a trip that Esquith was organizing out West. In those days, you needed to have a 3.5 average to qualify for the annual trip; although De La Cruz came just short with a 3.4, Esquith let him come along. (Over time Esquith has changed the criteria for the trips; most his alums agree that Esquith takes kids who work hard and follow his code of conduct—not just the highest academic achievers.)
In recent years, those trips have been paid for with the proceeds of his foundation. In the early years, Esquith paid for the outings out of his meager paycheck. At one point, De La Cruz recalls, Esquith even sold his car, walking miles to and from school, so he could pay for extras for his students.
For De La Cruz that class trip was as much a journey of self-discovery as an opportunity to see beyond the broken fences and violence of his East LA neighborhood. For three weeks, De La Cruz and his classmates criss-crossed the West, from Wisconsin to Montana, with Esquith and his wife Barbara who always accompanies her husband on student trips. They visited the battle site that commemorated Custer’s last stand. They explored Yellowstone Park. “I remember the plains of Wisconsin, how big they were,” recalls De La Cruz. “I was very patriotic and remember thinking” that this vast expanse of land is mine.”
The trip with Esquith “gave me a sense of country. History came alive for me,” he adds.
Equally important, for the then-ten-year-old, it was the first time an adult had made an “extravagant promise” and had followed through. As transformative as the trip out West had been, it was Shakespeare that became a life-changing event not only for De La Cruz, but also for his family.
Outgoing and with a 100-watt smile, De La Cruz took naturally to his role as the Earl of Kent in that year’s production of King Lear. “We were a bunch of kids for whom English wasn’t a first language. We all became brothers and sisters in arms… I’ve never had an experience like that since.”
But Shakespeare was a hard sell at home. When he visited his mother house, De La Cruz would have to lock himself into the bathroom to practice his lines in peace.
“My dad threatened to kick me out of the Hobart Shakespeareans with just a couple of weeks to go before production because we practiced every night until 8 pm,” De La Cruz recalls his dad screaming “’It’s over you’re done.’”
“I screamed, I fought,” recalls De La Cruz. His father asked if Esquith was “touching” him.
The De La Cruzes, like many Hobart parents, couldn’t understand why this man was spending so much time with his students. De La Cruz remembers the “naysayers”: This is too good to be true. Why is he doing it? Why does he spend so much time with you kids?
His parents “didn’t get it until they saw the play,” says De La Cruz. His parents overcame their skepticism when they met Esquith and saw their son perform in King Lear.
“This guy is inspiring ten year olds to go to school six days a week, two hours early and two hours late,” says De La Cruz, referring to the 6:30 a.m. math club Esquith organized for Room 56, before the start of the regular school day, and the after-school Shakespeare rehearsals. “He is just the best person, teacher I’ve ever had. He made me feel like I could accomplish anything.”
More surprising is the impact that De La Cruz says his life has had on his parents. Not long after leaving Room 56, De La Cruz mustered the courage to tell his mother he “didn’t like it when she drank or took drugs.” De La Cruz credits Esquith with teaching him how to hold his own in a conversation with adults. His mother, who worked as a janitor at the Staples Center after her arrest, eventually gave up not only drugs but also cigarettes and alcohol. She eventually become a Certified Nurses Assistant.
Meanwhile, De La Cruz’s father emerged from behind the kitchen sink and became the manager of a high-end Italian restaurant chain in LA.
De La Cruz’s parents each said that he had “inspired them.”
But, says De La Cruz: “Rafe inspired me.”
After “graduating” from fifth grade and going on to middle school, De La Cruz became a regular at Saturday school—Esquith credits Barbara with coming up with the idea. Over bagels and orange juice, Esquith would give his former students extra help with academics and test prep. Esquith also would help students fill out scholarship applications to the elite high schools where many of them landed. De La Cruz credits Esquith with helping him and several friends get into the Brentwood School, (There were students who went to other private schools, such as Immaculate Heart and Marlborough High School, an elite all-girls school, to which Esquith had steered them.) And, over the years, Saturday school also included more and more Shakespeare–reading Shakespeare and watching film versions of the plays. As a reward, the stalwarts of Saturday school, were invited to attend the Oregon Shakespeare festival with Esquith and Barbara.
It was during the trip to Oregon that De La Cruz remembers encountering the deep-rooted pragmatism and toughness that are equally important to the culture of Room 56.
De La Cruz was one of 30-or-so alums from Esquith’s class who were traveling to Ashland that year. For Esquith’s Saturday kids, the trip is not only a rare opportunity to get out of their neighborhoods, it is also a unique privilege.
During the regular school day, every child has the benefit of Esquith’s instruction. But it is during after-school music or Shakespeare and Saturday school that Esquith weeds out the handful of kids who for whatever reason won’t walk through the door he has opened for them. “Coming to school is a right,” explains De La Cruz. “Guitar, Shakespeare, travel—those are privileges.”
A kid who bullies another child, a kid whose parent threatens a teacher, a kid who fails to meet Esquith’s high expectations for personal behavior and respect, will lose out. Permanently.
As in Room 56, there are few rules on the Oregon trip; being responsible and kind, are values that are inculcated in the first weeks a fifth grader arrives in room 56. By the time they have earned a trip, everyone is expected to know—and meet—Esquith’s expectations. (KIPP borrowed its slogan Work Hard/Be Nice from Esquith; but in Room 56, the slogan is reversed. Be Nice comes first; it is the paramount virtue.) In Ashland, students are given a schedule, showing which days and times they are supposed to attend performances, and they are expected to show up at twice-daily meetings. Otherwise, they are free to roam Ashland as long as they stay in groups of four with one high-school student and long-time denizen of Saturday school attached to each group.
Ashland is a tiny town. But for the Hobart Shakespereans, the opportunity to stay at nice hotel, the ability to go to lunch or dinner with their friends—is a mark of trust that is also vested with great responsibility.
That year four boys learned just how much so. During one of the performances, they fell asleep. Word got back to Esquith that one of them had even snored audibly—though, as De La Cruz remembers the incident, no one thought much about it. The boys, after all were no more than 10 or 11. And boys will be boys.
Esquith, though, didn’t see it as a minor boyish lapse. He immediately called an emergency meeting, summoning the four boys up to the front of the room. “You’re not watching any more plays,” scolded Esquith pointing out that they had behaved disrespectfully to the performers and set a bad example. But that wasn’t all. He told the boys he was sending them home on the next flight out of Ashland. “Please pack your bags,” he said, ending the meeting.
De La Cruz, then about 11-years old, stayed behind and, in a snap decision that he says made him tremble, decided to plead the boys’ case with Esquith. “I was so scared, recalls De La Cruz who asked Rafe if there wasn’t some way the boys could be given another chance.
“Give me an alternative,” Esquith challenged.
“How about sudden death, like in basketball?” offered De La Cruz. “Any mistake from here on in, they are banned from this and future trips, and from the Hobart Shakespearean community.”
Esquith looked intently at De La Cruz for a few minutes, and finally said: “OK. Fine, these four boys can stay. Just so you know: You’re putting your neck out for them. If they screw up, you will also go home.”
De La Cruz and the four boys stayed for the rest of that Oregon trip. They also became stalwarts of the Hobart Shakespeareans in the years to come.
But, for De La Cruz, his confrontation with Esquith in Oregon was the only time he ever recalled his beloved teacher backing down in a situation that involved his deep-seated beliefs about respect and personal conduct. “Rafe is very much of the belief that you get to make mistakes” when it comes to academics. “He’ll always help you. But if you do something disrespectful, all the opportunities go away.”
Esquith’s most interesting—and controversial—argument is that kids are neither created equal (few would argue that they are), nor that they should be treated equally. He challenges the prevailing assumption that it is the teacher’s responsibility to ensure that all kids succeed. Teachers owe every child an equal chance at success—as Esquith puts it, a full menu of options. But what they select from the menu, is really up to each child.
For De La Cruz, Esquith opened a door of incomparable opportunities–a world of Shakespeare and travel. Great books and music. And movies. De La Cruz walked through with arms wide open. Back in fifth grade, De La Cruz was allowed to earn extra credit by watching, and writing critiques of, movies from Esquith’s vast trove of videos: Casablanca. The Godfather, The Great Escape. Rocky.
As he thinks about Esquith’s predicament today, De La Cruz is reminded of another movie he borrowed from Esquith, “Twelve Angry Men.” In the movie, an 18-year-old boy, a poor kid from the slums, is accused of killing his father. There is an eye witness, an “old man,” who claims to have heard the boy threatening to kill his father. The jurors, anxious to get back to their lives—some eager to condemn a boy from the slums– agree to find him guilty. Everyone, that is, except for Juror No. 8 who is played by Henry Fonda. As De La Cruz remembers it, Juror No. 8 questions the old man’s version of events.
There is also an old man on the jury, Juror Number Nine. And before long he too is won over to the boy’s innocence. This is what Juror Number Nine, a man described as “A mild, gentle old man, long since defeated by life and now merely waiting to die. A man who recognizes himself for what he is and mourns the days when it would have been possible to be courageous without shielding himself behind his many years.”
De La Cruz remembers the crucial passage:
He was a very old man with a torn jacket, and he carried two canes. I think I know him better than anyone here. This is a quiet, frightened, insignificant man who has been nothing all his life, who has never had recognition—his name in the newspapers. Nobody knows him after seventy-five years. That’s a very sad thing. A man like this needs to be recognized. To be questioned, and listened to, and quoted just once.
No, he wouldn’t really lie. But perhaps he’d make himself believe that he heard those words and recognized the boy’s face.
Is Rafe Esquith a closeted criminal who has hidden a predatory past behind a veil of good works? Or, is he the victim of the petty jealousies of those who envied his celebrity without seeing the hard work behind it, or, perhaps, of a man who is eager to see his name in the papers–to be questioned, and listened to, and quoted just once?
Rudy La Cruz says he is sure of the answer. “I never heard any kind of rumors. I never saw anything inappropriate and I was with him a lot for four or five years. With other students. In so many situations. Never ever did it boarder on anything inappropriate.”
Long before his teacher’s current predicament, De La Cruz sent his mentor a letter, comparing Esquith’s influence on him to Plato’s Allegory of the Cave: “I knew only pain and disappointment and thought that was the way of the world until I met you.”
Even as I was putting the finishing touches on this post, De La Cruz sent me three letters written on behalf of his teacher to the LAUSD—one by him and two by other Hobart Shakespearean, Jiyeon Hwang and Raul Hernandez. Meanwhile, Joann Cho, another alum and a college music teacher who continues to arrange music for the Hobart Shakespereans also sent me her email to the LAUSD. They are posted below.
Other students are welcome to send emails to firstname.lastname@example.org. Please put Rafe Esquith in the subject field of your email.
Brooklyn, NY 11201
June 23, 2015
Los Angeles Unified School District
PO Box 3307
Los Angeles, CA 90051
To Board of Education:
My name is Raul Hernandez and I graduated from Rafe Esquith’s class 15 years ago.
Rafe was my teacher, my mentor, and my hero.
Pick up any of his books, ask any of his alums, or observe any of his classes and you’ll understand the magic that is Room 56.
Today, I write as an alum and a living testament to what his unrivaled teaching methods and his unbridled motivation has accomplished.
My story is not unlike others in my neighborhood or perhaps some of your own. Like many in Koreatown, I grew up a first generation Mexican-American to parents without college degrees, without steady paychecks, and without access to healthcare. Seen from the outside, I could have been another statistic – another sad story we hear with much too frequency in the news.
However, by the age of 10, I knew bigger things were in store. Thanks to Rafe, the skills I learned in his class, my preparation, and his guidance, I entered the prestigious Brentwood School. Shortly thereafter, I graduated with an acceptance to Haverford College, a top ten liberal arts college.
Now, 15 years later, I find myself in education serving children of the poorest Congressional District in the country, the South Bronx, with Rafe as the standard bearer and example of what can be possible in today’s poorest neighborhoods.
I have decided to give back to the communities, much like many of you have done in your lives, either through a Teach for America program, Social Justice work, or teaching in settings just like this and so we all know the impact a teacher can have on his student’s lives.
Removing him from the classroom risks making our children from Koreatown just another statistic in the Times. Will that be your legacy?
I want to be proud to call LA my home and Hobart Elementary my Alma Mater.
Please – reinstate Rafe Esquith.
From: Joann Cho
Date: Sat, Jun 20, 2015 at 12:31 PM
Subject: In support of Rafe Esquith’s return to Room 56
Dear Ms. Morgan,
My name is Joann Cho, and I am a former student of Rafe Esquith turned colleague. I had him as a 5th and 6th grade teacher from 1995-1997, then starting in 2004, I began working for him and the Hobart Shakespeareans as the music director to their annual Shakespeare productions. I have known Rafe as a teacher and more importantly as a person for many years now, and I find the recent abrupt interruption to his year in the classroom to be entirely unnecessary at best.
Rafe is a wonderfully caring, passionate, and dedicated teacher and any student or parent who has worked with him or been part of his class would certainly be in support of his return to Room 56 at Hobart. He immerses himself fully in his teaching philosophy and cultivates each student in his classroom as if he were their only guiding presence in life– and often times, he is. Over his tenure as an elementary school teacher, particularly at Hobart Elementary (where I was a student), Rafe has gained utmost respect from administrators, colleagues, students, and parents.
Over the many years that I have personally known Rafe and the thousands of conversations we have shared, I have never had one that did not somehow incorporate ideas to better himself as a teacher and to reach students who are somehow more challenging to reach. He not only creates an environment for success in his classroom during the short time that his students have with him, but he sets up a path for each of his students to succeed throughout the remainder of their lives.
As a community college music professor now, I think of Rafe and his lessons every day when I step into the classroom. I try to emulate his teaching style, his dedication, and his incredible curiosity for learning new things. When I am discouraged as a teacher, I call Rafe for advice and he always knows the right thing to say. When I’m not sure about whether an idea will work, I never hesitate to run it by Rafe.
All in all, I am shocked and disappointed in the LAUSD investigation over what seems like trite classroom humor (in conjunction with one of the best works of literature in history) and find this whole situation to be a tactic to humiliate and mar Rafe’s pristine reputation as one of the greatest educators of our time.
I urge you and your colleagues at LAUSD to reconsider the case that has been opened and allow this fine teacher to return to his classroom. I sincerely believe you are making a big mistake at the expense of Rafe, his students, and their families.