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L.A. Teacher Awarded British Honor

Rafe Esquith is recognized for his Shakespeare program for inner-city kids.

October 29, 2002|Arianne Aryanpur | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON -- Next April, as they do each spring, Rafe Esquith's fifth- and sixth-grade students at Hobart Boulevard Elementary School west of downtown Los Angeles will perform Shakespeare in their street clothes.

And as in other years, Academy Award-nominated actor Sir Ian McKellen plans to be there to watch.

McKellen, who recently played Gandalf in "The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring," comes to see 11- and 12-year-old kids spout Shakespeare. A few years ago, McKellen took a break from filming to watch "Rafe's kids." A few years before that, he made the trip to Hobart even though the Academy Awards were the next evening.

On Monday, however, instead of the British coming to see Esquith and his students, Esquith went to see the British.

He was in Washington to be honored at the British Embassy for service to British-American relations through his Hobart Shakespeareans Project. Started with the help of one of Esquith's former students, the program works to improve the quality of life of inner-city kids through the study of Shakespeare.

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."

Three other Americans were honored for aiding the families of British American victims of the Sept. 11 attacks in New York. The Rev. Andrew Craig Mead, rector of St. Thomas Church, was recognized for his spiritual help, including organizing a multi-faith prayer service for the families of British victims. Richard J. Sheirer, former commissioner of the New York City Office of Emergency Management, was honored for organizing recovery efforts after the terrorist attacks. And Bradford Billet, deputy commissioner of the New York City Office of the Mayor, was recognized for working closely with the British consulate general to compile a list of foreign nationals and a DNA list of survivors.

Monday's award was the latest in a series of honors Esquith has received for his work at Hobart, where he has taught for 18 years. In 1992 he received a National American Teacher Award, and in 1997 he was named Outstanding Teacher of the Year by Parents magazine.

"I've received a lot of teacher awards, but I've never felt this honored," said Esquith, who was recognized Monday as an Officer of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire. Initially founded in 1917 to recognize the contributions of civilians in World War I, the award now honors civilian contributions to public service and society.

McKellen isn't the only celebrity fan of the Hobart Shakespeareans Project; British actors Kenneth Branagh and Emma Thompson are both supporters. Oprah Winfrey, who in 2000 awarded Esquith $100,000 through her "Use Your Life" award, is also a patron.

For Esquith, who joined the ranks of previous recipients including former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, the real honorees are his students.

He said he is impressed every day by the intelligence and courteousness of his students -- many of whom come from minority backgrounds and from families where English is not their first language.

In preparation for Esquith's visit to Washington, his students gave him the "royal treatment" by rolling out a red carpet and referring to him as "Your Majesty" for days before he left, he said.

"These kids are just as bright as the other ones; they just don't have the same opportunities," Esquith said. Through projects such as Hobart Shakespeareans and weekend SAT tutoring sessions, Esquith hopes he can give students that extra boost.

A program Esquith created that allows his students to go to school from 6:30 a.m. to 5 p.m., 50 weeks a year, has helped his graduates attend top schools like Yale and Harvard.

"I'm doing the best I can in my little corner of the world to level the playing field -- that's what a teacher is supposed to do," said Esquith, a UCLA graduate.

With nothing but a chalkboard as the backdrop, next spring's performance of Shakespeare's "Henry IV" will be no different from years past, with its lack of a set, costumes or props.

But that's the way Esquith and his students like it.

"All that stuff is showbiz; this is about education," Esquith said.

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