As Los Angeles struggles to wake up at 5:30 a.m., Rafe Esquith is already on his way to work. When he arrives at his job, the sun hasn’t yet seen the tops of the buildings. He subsists on $40,000 a year and makes his job more about what he does than about the money he earns. He even comes in on Saturdays.
He’s an elementary school teacher at Hobart Elementary, right in the middle of one of the worst parts of L.A., where shootings near campus are common. Some of his students, made up of many races, have their own problems at home with family members slowly being brought down by alcohol or drugs. But in his classroom, where education is not only fundamental, but a life-changing experience, racial barriers do not exist. He teaches sports, math, money management, all important to some degrees. The most remarkable part of his career is how he teaches Shakespeare, how he inspires the students to understand what Shakespeare is trying to say. He is far above those English teachers who just move on to another author or playwright after Shakespeare, leaving the students behind who can’t understand what the Bard was saying. No wonder those students hate those plays.
Esquith is the teacher that more schools need. He doesn’t move on to any other subject until his students understand, as student Alan Avila remarks, his story an extraordinary one when you consider the state of education today. Esquith even teaches Shakespeare to the extent that in reading a scene from Hamlet, the students become emotional over the words. Actually emotional! Naturally, Esquith’s colleagues resent him because he’s more successful than they are. He’s nationally known. Michael York and Ian McKellen even visit to expound more on the history Shakespeare, what it’s like to perform it, and they even spend some time listening to the students reading the words and act scenes themselves.
Mel Stuart, whose major film credit is “Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory,” sometimes lets Esquith’s story play out as if it were an extended commercial calling for the improvement of education, which becomes a disadvantage at times because it feels like there should be more time spent with these students. There are occasional clips from the major performance of “Hamlet”, held by the students at the end of the year, swordplay included, and them not dressed in the expected costumes, but as themselves, which as Ian McKellen states, is the way Shakespeare meant his work to be understood. It was always about hearing the words, not necessarily what was on the stage. Stuart has the right intentions because Esquith is in every single moment and if not physically on the screen, then through the interviews with a few of his current students. The walls of his classroom are adorned with college penants and the names of his former students currently attending those schools, like Harvard and UCLA, a way to show his students that it is possible to get into college, it is possible to succeed in life, but it takes time, patience, and huge effort and it’s not hard to do if you can do it.
Through Esquith, it’s clear that the usefulness of education is only apparent years after the classes are over. What we keep in our minds is the only indicator of whether a teacher has been successful. Esquith’s students will obviously never forget what he taught them and most importantly, he has given them new hope in life, rare in their Los Angeles homes. American education doesn’t need more idealism, it needs inspiration. And if more teachers and more powers in the Department of Education saw what Ray Esquith is doing, maybe he could serve as the start toward a new stance on education. It’s about time something was done that’s away from what’s been ordinary and tired. Esquith is already doing it.