Imagine the sight and sound of American nine- and eleven-year-old children performing Shakespeare's Hamlet or Henry V and understanding every word they recite. Imagine them performing well enough to elicit praise from such accomplished Shakespearean actors as Ian McKellen and Michael York, and to be invited to perform with the Royal Shakespeare Company in England. Such a spectacle would be highly impressive in the toniest of America's private schools. But what if the kids were the children of recent Latino and Asian immigrants attending a large Los Angeles inner-city public school in one of America's toughest neighborhoods?
That is the astonishing story told by the new documentary The Hobart Shakespeareans, which discovers how one man's uncommon commitment and resourcefulness have opened up worlds of opportunity for his "disadvantaged" students and perhaps have demonstrated a way forward for America's beleaguered public education system.
The Latino- and Asian-American children crowding Los Angeles' sprawling Hobart Boulevard Elementary face daunting odds. Their neighborhood in the heart of Central Los Angeles is better known for crime than for opportunity. They grow up in low-income households. Their school, typically for public education in poor districts, is under-funded and overcrowded. Most of their parents do not speak English. No one is giving these kids educational perks, like class trips and intensive tutoring. And no one is expecting any but the smartest and luckiest to rise beyond the limitations of their environment. No one, that is, except Rafe Esquith.
The Hobart Shakespeareans finds fifth-grade teacher Esquith has very strong some might say uncompromising ideas about educating today's children of immigrants. He has developed a renowned if unusual battery of methods, challenging those who would expect less from immigrant children. The one thing Esquith insists on is expecting the best from these kids, no matter what their backgrounds are, and he backs up that expectation by giving them the educational resources to defy the odds. "I fear something for these children," Esquith says. "And it's not gangs; it's not drugs. What I fear is that they're ordinary. I don't want my students to be ordinary; I want them to be extraordinary because I know that they are."
With that abiding faith and passion Esquith leads his fifth-graders through a rigorous core curriculum of English, mathematics, geography and literature. But he goes further, creating a real-world learning environment. The film shows how it works: students must apply for a job, such as banker, office monitor, clerk, janitor, police officer and many others. Each child receives a monthly "paycheck" in a classroom currency. They correspondingly pay rent to sit at their desks the closer to the front of the room, the higher the rent. Students can make extra money by getting good grades and participating in extracurricular activities; they can also be fined for breaking class rules or getting poor grades. The classroom motto is "Be nice, work hard. There are no shortcuts." Esquith also inspires them with cross-country trips to learn history firsthand and to experience a world of opportunity beyond the troubled confines of Central LA.
The pinnacle of achievement for the students each year is the performance of a play by Shakespeare; during the year of filming, the play was Hamlet. Lest anyone think these kids might be performing adolescent skits, think again. Esquith's students perform full-length, unabridged versions, and spend the year studying the plays so that they understand every word and allusion; they arrive at class at 6:30 a.m. and don't leave until 5 p.m. in order to do so.
In The Hobart Shakespeareans, student Alan Avila plays Hamlet, Brenda De Leon is a breathtaking Ophelia, Damien Mendieta is Polonius and Lidia Medina is Gertrude, and each testifies to the impact of Esquith's class. Avila, a former problem student, tells us his favorite book is The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn "because it holds a mirror to our nature…shows us how humans really think." "It was easier to memorize lines than to learn character," opines Mendieta like a veteran thespian. And Medina says, "This is the best thing that's ever happened to me, performing and showing what I've worked for in front of all those people!"
The efforts of the "Hobart Shakespeareans" have drawn the attention and help of such renowned actors as Michael York and Sir Ian McKellen, who, fresh from playing the wizard Gandolf in The Lord of the Rings trilogy, sends quite a ripple of excitement through Esquith's fifth-graders when he visits. But he is clearly as delighted with them as they are with him. And it's easy to see why these students embrace Shakespeare as one of their own. York calls the Hobart Shakespeareans "one of the great Shakespeare troupes" in Los Angeles.
That's where some controversy accrues to Esquith's methods. What's he doing teaching Shakespeare or other "dead white men" such as Mark Twain to Latino- and Asian-American kids in Central LA, anyway? Shouldn't he be teaching them something more relevant to their lives? The class, it turns out, also reads The Autobiography of Malcolm X and Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee. But Esquith is an unreconstructed humanist. In the first place, he feels he should teach what he loves. He also believes that seizing the universal human element in seemingly disparate material is a key to learning, and to a wider world of knowledge and achievement. Rather than favoring the kids' disadvantages, Esquith wants to turn these liabilities on their heads. "If a 10-year-old, who doesn't speak English at home, can step in front of you and do a scene from Shakespeare," says Esquith, "then there is nothing that he cannot accomplish."
Beyond controversy are the results of Esquith's multi-faceted program. An uncommon number of former Hobart Shakespeareans have moved on to attend top colleges and universities throughout the country. "I have students at Harvard, at Yale, at Swarthmore and UCLA," says Esquith. "My younger students were invited to give a performance at the US Supreme Court, and my older students to give a performance at the Globe Theatre in London. It was the greatest day of my teaching life."
At first, Esquith and his wife, Barbara, funded his program out of their own pockets and with prodigious expenditures of their time and energy. Today, donations from major corporations and private individuals cover the cost of the class's extra-curricular activities None of these funds are used to supplement Esquith's salary as an inner-city school teacher.
Some say that Esquith's successes are the product of a singular sense of mission, and therefore not examples broadly applicable to an education crisis in which poor kids in poor schools fall ever farther behind. But what Esquith has proved, albeit through singular sacrifice, is that with the best educational tools tools that society could provide if it wanted any kid can succeed. That, for Rafe Esquith, is the American dream.
"With all my thrilling experiences in the movie business, this was a wonderful film to shoot," says producer/director Mel Stuart. "We can see these kids blossom and open up. It's a testament to the powers of art and to the difference one thoroughly committed person can make."
The Hobart Shakespeareans is a co-production of Mel Stuart, Thirteen/WNET and POV/American Documentary.