“First God Made Idiots. That was for Practice. Then he made School Boards.”
Thus ends a new moving tribute, narrated by Sir Ian McKellen, the renowned Shakespearean actor, in support of Rafe Esquith, who has been called the “best teacher in America” for his work with fifth graders at Hobart Elementary, an innercity school in Los Angeles.
A few months ago, when I heard that Esquith was removed from his classroom for reading an excerpt from Mark Twain and making an off-color joke in class, I contacted McKellen’s agent in the hope of asking the actor what he thought of Esquith’s predicament. My interest was in more than just getting a celebrity quote.
The accusations against Esquith had most recently morphed into an investigation of his foundation, which helps support his Hobart Shakespeareans–the moniker applies to both the students who produce a professional-quality Shakespeare play as a culminating class project, as well as the foundation, which pays for everything from musical instruments to trips to the Oregon Shakespeare festival for Esquith’s students. Last fall, before what has now turned into a months-long investigation, I had the opportunity to visit Esquith’s classroom and meet the latest crop of Hobart Shakespeareans. I also interviewed several alums, college graduates all, who still call themselves Hobart Shakespeareans and count their experiences in Esquith’s class among their most formative. In earlier posts here and here I’ve recounted their experiences in his classroom and what they have to say about their former teacher.
But for all his good works, might not some of those funds have been misused? I thought that McKellen, as one of Esquith’s major supporters, would hold a key to that answer.
Neither his agent nor McKellen got back to me. But in this charming video I just unearthed via perdaily.com, MacLellan calls Esquith one of his “heros”, the work Esquith does in his classroom “miraculous” and his removal “unjust.” This short video, which includes testimonials by over a dozen students and parents and a cameo appearance by actor Hal Holbrook, provides a compelling answer to what happens to the money donated to the Hobart Shakespeareans. It also offers tantalizing clues as to why the Los Angeles Unified School District might consider Esquith an educational subversive whom they might wish to silence.
Indeed, the curious fact is that until the recent investigation, it seems the LAUSD was just about the only institution completely uninterested in what was happening in Esquith’s classroom over the past 30-odd years in which his teaching methods have won international acclaim. (The day I visited there were 20 teachers from China sitting in on his class.) A reader of one of my earlier blog posts on Esquith, a man named Gerald, noted that the LAUSD is: “it seems, the only institution that hasn’t awarded or recognized his work- literally the only one! They never mention him in staff trainings or professional developments and they never refer to him as a model of good teaching- but they sure are working hard to investigate him!”
For more on Rafe Esquith teaching methods see this post.