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Shakespeare, to expand their globe

A Koreatown teacher sets high goals for his fifth graders. The results are chronicled in a PBS documentary.

September 06, 2005|Merrill Balassone | 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.

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."

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