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Rafe Esquith, Alumnus and Teacher

  • By Louise Chu, Heather Goyette
  • Published Feb 1, 2003 8:00 AM

Few teachers get the royal treatment that Rafe Esquith does. His fifth-graders have even rolled out a red carpet and called him “Your Majesty.”

While he isn’t really a king, Esquith comes close: he has been awarded a knighthood, and is officially an Officer of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire. “I’ve received a lot of teacher awards, but I’ve never felt this honored,” says Esquith, a 1981 graduate of UCLA.

By any measure, Esquith’s student actors have been wildly successful. They have opened for the Royal Shakespeare Company, been hired by Sir Peter Hall to perform A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Ahmanson in Los Angeles and appeared at the Globe Theater in London. What makes his troupe stand out most, however, is that his students are just 10 years old, and learning English as their second language.

His actors live in the inner city, and are mostly from immigrant Central American and Korean families. His studio is in Hobart Boulevard Elementary School, located in one of the poorest neighborhoods of central Los Angeles. His students spend an entire school year studying and rehearsing one play and then performing it at Shakespeare festivals across the country.

British Ambassador Sir Christopher Meyer called Esquith “one of that rare breed of teachers whose influence extends well beyond the classroom. His remarkable career ... stands as a testament to what passion, imagination and energy can achieve.”

Esquith’s teaching awards include the Walt Disney American Teacher Award for National Teacher of the Year, Parents magazine’s national As You Grow Award, and Oprah Winfrey’s $100,000 Use Your Life Award. He has given his award money to his school and his children – setting up a charitable fund for them.

Esquith works to mold his fifth graders into latter-day Renaissance scholars and show them a world outside their neighborhood’s graffitied walls and barred windows. Esquith says that he is inspired by the “individual human mind and the child’s power to master the multiplication tables.” A “child’s mind is a greater monument to God than the cathedral,” Esquith believes.

Beginning his day at 6:30 a.m., Esquith tutors students in math, history and the classics. Lunches and recesses are devoted to music lessons, for Esquith insists that his students take up an instrument. After school, Esquith coaches volleyball, teaches computer use and offers additional tutoring.

As a result of his work, Esquith’s students consistently score in the top 5 to 10 percent nationally in standardized tests, and his math team has gone undefeated for the past five years. Many have made it past Hobart Boulevard and moved onto college and law school.

Years after they’ve graduated, many of his former students return to help tutor and raise funds for the next generation of Hobart Shakespeareans. And that dedication to learning may be Esquith’s most important contribution to his students.