I consider Rafe Esquith of the Hobart Boulevard Elementary School in Los Angeles to be the best classroom teacher in the country. So when I learned that he has been barred from teaching since March for telling a joke about nudity in Mark Twain’s “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” I wondered if the education world had finally, inalterably, gone crazy.
I have written many columns about Esquith. There are several chapters about him in my book “Work Hard. Be Nice.” He teaches fifth graders from mostly Hispanic and Korean families in a low-income part of the city. No where else have I seen such depth or imagination in a public school classroom.
Every year his students produce and perform a Shakespeare play. His students love him. Their parents love him. Teachers from around the country visit Room 56 to see him and his kids in action. He has won many awards. He has published four very good books, and he is a superstar in China, where teaching is taken much more seriously than it is here.
Yet the Los Angeles Unified School District is still investigating him for what they apparently consider possibly inappropriate words in his classroom, even though the accusations have already been found without merit by the California Commission on Teacher Credentials. His attorney says he is just one of hundreds of teachers who have been send off to a district administrative office, known widely as the teacher jail, without any formal charges to wait for results of investigations that often have no merit and are hard to understand.
Superintendent Ramon C. Cortines declined to address details about the case, but in a statement released Friday afternoon, he indicated that the school district is exploring “serious issues.”
“This is a very complex issue,” Cortines said. “While I respect that this teacher is extremely popular – and has been for some time – in the briefings that have been given to me, there are serious issues that go beyond the initial investigation. The Los Angeles Unified School District will not be rushed to make a decision and will complete our investigation with the highest level of integrity. The safety and security of every District student will remain our number one priority.”
I have known Cortines for 30 years and consider him a good guy. But it would have been nice if his lawyers had shared with Esquith what those serious issues are, since they have had the case for three months.
Esquith told me in March there was trouble. Like many other fans of the annual Hobart Shakespeareans dramatic production, I received a notice then that this year’s performance had been canceled. When I e-mailed him, he told me it was a serious situation and he could not tell me more. He asked me to hold off writing anything until he could speak freely.
The Los Angeles Times published an account this week of his removal from class, which followed a television report on KCBS. I have spoken to Ben Meiselas, an attorney from Mark Geragos’ firm who is representing Esquith. Meisalas has given me details not in the Los Angeles Times account, including that the incident started with a joke and that the teacher who reported it to the school’s principal now wants Esquith back in the classroom.
According to Meiselas, Esquith was rehearsing with his students for this year’s play and reading from a section of Huckleberry Finn about the duke and the king, merry actors who provide some of the book’s comedy. The Room 56 students were practicing Shakespeare, not Twain, but Esquith thought the passage was relevant. In one performance, Esquith read: “The king came prancing out on all fours, naked. He was painted in rings and stripes all over in all sorts of colors and looked as splendid as a rainbow.”
Meiselas said Esquith quipped that if he couldn’t raise enough support for the annual play, he guessed the class would have to similarly perform naked.
Esquith was joking. He does that a lot, as anyone who knows him has long been aware of. The school district has provided no significant funds for the annual play and Esquith’s many field trips and other projects, but his work has attracted many wealthy and influential supporters, so he was not expressing a real worry. The Shakespearean plays are very low-budget, since they are done in his small classroom with the audience on risers and the many musical instruments mostly donated.
But a teacher who was in the room took him seriously, reported this to the principal and the principal reported it to the district. From there on, Meiselas said, the district has been conducting an open-ended investigation with no apparent charges and no due process for Esquith. No child has complained. No parent has complained. The teacher who made the first report e-mailed him in April to say “I just want you to know that I am here for you . . . and I wish you the best resolution possible!”
Esquith’s lawyers have told the district to publicly apologize and let him return to work or be sued. Meiselas said district officials pulled some of Esquith’s students out of class and questioned them intensely about what Esquith had said and anything he might have done to them, without first seeking the permission of their parents. Meiselas said the students were extremely upset, as were the parents.
Esquith was sent to the teacher’s jail for two months, and then allowed to await the end of the investigation at home, with pay. The district has indicated there may be no conclusion to its process until August, according to the Los Angeles Times.
The questions being asked and the letters Esquith has received indicate the district is now intent on killing off some of the programs and trips that make his class so good. A district official wrote to tell him his students’ annual summer trip to Oregon for the Shakespearean Theatrical Festival must be canceled. He was told to report his students’ contact addresses so their parents can be informed that “the trip is not authorized or sponsored by the District.”
This is the way they treat one of the most famous and conscientious teachers in the country, who has worked 12-hour days for several decades, usually keeping his classroom open during summer, holidays and on some weekends. Hundreds of former students come to visit. He advises many of them on how to get into the best high schools and how to prepare for college. He asks everyone to call him “Rafe.” The main page of the school’s official Web site says it is “The Proud Home of Rafe Esquith and the Hobart Shakespeareans.”
There are no suggestions that he has harmed any children. But as many of the great teachers I have written about over the years have told me, if you work hard and show administrators how much better our schools could be if they took their responsibilities seriously, you are going to become a target for abuse.
I have witnessed many outrages by school districts, but this might be the worst yet.