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Shakespeare, to expand their globe

Times Staff Writer

The bell shrills at Hobart Elementary in the heart of Koreatown, signaling the end of the school day. The campus quickly empties, but no one budges in fifth-grade teacher Rafe Esquith’s classroom. Instead, more children file in; some perch on filing cabinets bordering the room and some former students, still enjoying summer vacation before the start of middle school, pack into the back.

Today is an important day for this group, the Hobart Shakespeareans, and a hush falls, punctuated only by excited whispers. The cast list is being announced for this year’s Shakespeare production, “Love’s Labour’s Lost.”

The children, ages 9 to 11, know there are months of work ahead of them. Esquith has asked them to sacrifice video games and television. These children, many from immigrant families who don’t speak English at home, will memorize and perform the unabridged work. But they are inspired by the students from years past, who have traveled the country to perform and attended top-notch universities, and whose fans include actors Ian McKellen and Michael York. Many alumni, some still children themselves, return to help the new actors memorize their parts and master the rhythm of the lines.

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The young troupe is the subject of a PBS documentary, “The Hobart Shakespeareans,” directed by Mel Stuart that premieres on “P.O.V.” at 9:30 p.m. Friday on KCET in the Los Angeles area. The hourlong film chronicles the group’s year of rehearsals as they prepared for their performance of “Hamlet” in 2003.

Esquith’s students suffer from poverty and struggle against the influences of gangs and drugs, which result in a culture of low expectations. To compete with students from more privileged schools, his classes work twice as hard. His rallying cry, echoed in a banner at the front of the classroom: “There are no shortcuts.”

Nearly all his students arrive at 7 a.m. -- an hour before school starts -- for extra math work and spend their recess and lunch breaks learning guitar. After school is Shakespeare rehearsal, and on Saturdays and vacations, students practice grammar and math, while alumni can get SAT tutoring and help with college applications. The students read higher-level literature, such as “Lord of the Flies,” “Huckleberry Finn” and “The Catcher in the Rye.”

“I ask these children to defy the culture of their neighborhood,” Esquith said. “I want my kids to know that they’re just as good and just as American as Abraham Lincoln, George Washington or Dr. Martin Luther King. My worst fear is that they will become ordinary.”

Brenda De Leon, 12, who starred in the production of “Hamlet” as Ophelia, said her experience as a Hobart Shakespearean broadened her horizons and taught her to set higher standards for herself.

“In other classes, they don’t expect much -- if you got average grades they would be happy with you,” said Brenda, who now hopes to attend an Ivy League school and become an AIDS specialist. “I was very shy and wouldn’t participate in class. In Rafe’s class, there was lots of work and lots of sacrifice, and I learned I had to be excellent all the time.”

As a Shakespearean, Brenda also took trips: one to perform in front of 1,000 people in Hawaii, where she also swam with dolphins; a trip to Ashland, Ore., for its annual Shakespeare Festival; Washington, D.C., for a tour of American monuments; and South Dakota to learn about Native American heritage.

“Before, I felt that Koreatown was the whole world,” Brenda said. “Then I saw that there were better communities and neighborhoods. There weren’t always gangs.”

Esquith said the trips are an opportunity to teach the children real-life skills, such as how to manage a budget, plan meals and even tip the maids.

“When we travel, we won’t stay in Motel 6 -- that’s not what we’re working for,” he said. “I’m tired of walking into a hotel and seeing that the only Latinos there are the workers. I want my Latino students to be running these hotels someday.”

As a young teacher, Esquith worked four jobs, including graveyard shifts, to raise the money for trips and to purchase books and musical instruments for his students. Still, he would arrive at Hobart at 6:30 each morning wearing his signature uniform: a crisp button-down shirt, sweater vest and tie, with white Adidas sneakers.

His schedule eventually took him past the brink of physical exhaustion, but even that didn’t slow him down. He once climbed out of a hospital window after a severe asthma attack so he wouldn’t miss a trip with his students. It took pleading from his wife, Barbara, a registered nurse, to make him realize the toll on his health.

“I had to grow up a little bit,” Esquith said. “If you’re all passion and no brains, you’re not effective. You’re no good to anyone if you drop dead.”

In 1992, an alumnus from Esquith’s first year of teaching, by then in his third year of Yale Law School, came to his rescue. He set up a nonprofit organization called the Hobart Shakespearean Foundation that now brings in about $200,000 a year in donations.

The documentary shows snippets of the troupe’s “Hamlet” performance, which is interspersed with rock songs and performed in Esquith’s classroom with stage lights and bleachers set up for the audience, which included British actor York.

“I cannot watch Mel’s documentary without being moved to tears,” York said. “There’s such a bad rap about education, immigration and all these ills, but here’s someone who has a solution and the dedication to carry it out. Rafe says his big fear is that the kids will be ordinary, but you have the sense that none of them are.”

York said he was particularly moved by a scene in which the students read an excerpt from “Huckleberry Finn” dealing with Huck deciding whether to turn in his friend Jim, an escaped slave, to the authorities. The children take turns reading, their sobs choking the words as they are overcome with emotion.

“I was truly amazed, and I’m not just talking about the Shakespeare,” York said. “It’s all the other things that go along with it -- the extraordinary civility of the children.”

The motto “Be Nice, Work Hard” is another tenet the Shakespeareans must live by. On a recent afternoon during recess, the classroom is full of students who are learning to play guitar. The walls are covered with pennants from the nation’s top universities -- Yale, Stanford, Harvard. Under the pennants are placards inscribed with the names of the students who now go there, with the date they graduated from Esquith’s class.

While Esquith has won honors, such as the National Medal of Arts from President Bush (which he keeps locked away in a cabinet for safekeeping) and the National Teacher of the Year Award (which he accepted wearing a tuxedo with his white tennis shoes), his peers have not always been kind. He has received hate letters from fellow teachers who feel their efforts have been overlooked in light of Esquith’s national attention, and he gets his fair share of cold shoulders on campus.

His classroom too has come under fire -- vandalized and burglarized by gang members. And his students say they are picked on for being in the Shakespeare productions, ostracized as “snobs” by former teachers and fellow students alike. For Esquith, it’s not about making an easy path for his students but about opening doors for them to work hard and create better lives for themselves.

“I’m just this really ordinary guy that stuck with it,” Esquith said. “My job is done when they’re ready for their lives.”


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