Disney Awards Teacher With a Touch of Class


It is still dark at 6 a.m. when sixth-grader Henry Artign sets out for the eight-block walk from his Koreatown home, past the hulks of burned-out stores, to the campus of Hobart Elementary.

When he arrives at Room 52, his teacher, Rafe Esquith, is already there, preparing for a school day that will not end until the sun goes down.

For 10 hours each day, Esquith and his 36 fifth- and sixth-graders are holed up in their cramped bungalow classroom, immersed in a world of Shakespearean plays and algebraic equations, of classical music and fine literature--a far cry from the gritty world outside the schoolyard’s chain-link fence.

For Esquith and for his students, the long and grueling day is a labor of love.

“It’s hard. . . . Mr. Esquith is tough on us,” Henry said. “But he also makes it fun. He’ll try anything that he thinks will help us learn. He makes you feel that you have to always try your best.”


Esquith, a veteran of 10 years in the classroom, shakes off praise as . . . well, much ado about nothing.

But others don’t agree. Tonight, Esquith will be one of 36 outstanding teachers from around the country to receive an American Teacher Award from the Walt Disney Co. in a ceremony that will be televised nationally from the Pantages Theatre in Hollywood.

Selected by representatives from a dozen national teacher organizations, the PTA and school administrator groups, the winners include two other Los Angeles-area instructors: Robin Share, a Van Nuys High School drama teacher, and Kerrill Kephart, an English teacher at Long Beach Polytechnic High School.

Each winner will receive $2,500. But Esquith, 38, says it is the rewards he gets every day at Hobart that matter the most.

“When you see a life change, a child realize that the world is so big and offers them so much . . . that’s what makes it easy to get up each morning,” he said.

In these days of teacher pay cuts and low morale, Esquith’s story of dedication and personal sacrifice seems almost too good to be true.

Every year during school vacations, he takes his students on a series of “field trips” around the country--paid for out of his own pocket with money he earns by working three jobs. He meets with former students on weekends to help them prepare for college entrance exams. He gives each of his pupils his home phone number and promises an open door if they ever need help with family or personal problems.

And each year, he produces a class that outshines any other in the Los Angeles Unified School District’s mathematics competition and wins kudos from some of Great Britain’s most acclaimed actors for its renditions of Shakespeare’s plays.

For the last eight years, Esquith has taught children identified as being intellectually gifted or high achieving at Hobart, one of the largest elementary schools in the nation, with 2,400 students. Almost all of them are poor, many of them are immigrants, and most are from families where little or no English is spoken.

For Esquith, those disadvantages are part of what draws him to teach at an inner-city school.

“America is supposed to be the land of equal opportunity, but it’s not,” he said. “The kids I teach don’t have an equal opportunity. They’re just as great as the kids who grow up in Pacific Palisades, but how are you going to get to Stanford if your family doesn’t speak English and you don’t know the ins and outs . . . how to apply, how to prepare.”

So what Esquith gives them each day is more than an understanding of science or algebra. He gives them hope, a vision of a life beyond the boundaries of their riot-torn neighborhood.

“Every day when I get up and look out the window and think about my world, it seems hopeless,” said Michelle Ibanez, a fifth-grader who will play the role of Lady Macbeth in the class production of “Macbeth” later this month. “Then I come to this class and I feel like maybe anything is possible.”

There is no magic to what Esquith does. He follows the same advice he gives his students: “There are no shortcuts.”

“I have very high standards,” he said, interrupting a geography lesson to talk with a reporter. “I put my heart and soul in this, and the kids know that. And I demand the same from them.”

His all-out style has taken a heavy toll on his finances and his personal life.

He and his wife cannot afford a second car, so he takes the bus to and from school each day. He arrives home each evening with just enough time to gobble a quick dinner, then heads out to his second job tutoring the children of wealthy families. On Saturdays, he teaches at a private math academy. He often gets by on four hours of sleep.

“He’s working too many hours, I know,” said his wife, Barbara Tong, a registered nurse. “But he’s a very dedicated teacher. I knew that when I married him. And if this makes him happy, well, you can’t deny that to a person.”

An amiable man who favors sweat shirts and sneakers at work, Esquith shrugs at the image. “Don’t make me out to be St. Rafe,” he warned. “I like nice things. I like the good life, but there are so many kids that need our help.”

So every day, in a classroom lined with portraits of Shakespeare and pennants from universities around the country, Esquith dispenses a special brand of help. And for five weeks each year, when school is not in session, he and his wife tap their credit cards to the limit to take the students to parts of the country they might otherwise never see.

They go to Ashland, Ore., to a national Shakespeare festival. They spend two weeks touring national parks and another two weeks traveling through Virginia, Pennsylvania and Washington for a firsthand look at the history they study in class.

The trips serve as incentives to reward good performance, as well as reminders of the students’ potential for success.

“In our neighborhood, you look outside your window and you see burned buildings,” said Grace Kim, a sixth-grader in Esquith’s class. “He teaches us that there is more to life than just what’s outside the window.”

Parents contribute what little money they can to help finance the trips, and few complain about the long hours in class or the frequent road trips.

And despite a teachers union directive urging that teachers protest district salary cuts by doing no more than the minimum required, Esquith said he gets strong support from most of the more than 80 teachers at Hobart.

“I don’t do this in a vacuum. . . . I couldn’t do what I do if it weren’t for the help of a lot of really fine teachers, who work very hard to prepare these kids for what they face in my class,” he said.

Esquith said he supports the union’s demands for a better contract and will walk a picket line--just as he did in 1989--if teachers strike in February.

“I’m in favor of a strike. . . . I’m very angry that teachers are being painted as villains. We’re not,” he said.

“It’s not just about money. If people really understood the conditions under which we have to teach, they would understand our anger. There are a lot of great teachers who give all they can every day. But in every other country in the world, there’s a lot more respect for what we do.”

And while he eschews the hoopla that goes along with his Disney award--the meetings with movie stars and trips to Disneyland--he hopes that his selection and the national coverage will give him a chance to spread a message to young people who might be considering teaching as a career.

“I grew up in the Fairfax district and I went to public schools in L.A. And I learned what a difference a teacher can make,” he said.

“My parents raised me to know that whatever job you do, you have to give something back to the community. And there’s a lot of good to give in teaching.”