The Hobart Shakespeareans

Even by Sir Ian McKellen's standards, the fifth grade class of Shakespeareans is an impressive group.

Originally Published in The New York Times on September 6, 2005

In a fifth-grade classroom in a poor and dangerous part of Los Angeles, Hobart Boulevard Elementary School pupils (mostly Latino and Asian) are doing "Hamlet." They are so good at it that at one point Sir Ian McKellen, who has played Hamlet, Macbeth, Iago, Richard II and Richard III, drops in to watch, to do a little recitation of his own and to praise them.

"The best thing about the Hobart Shakespeareans is that they know what they're saying," Sir Ian tells them, adding that this cannot be said of every adult who has ever appeared in a Shakespearean play.

In Mel Stuart's fine and passionate documentary "The Hobart Shakespeareans," several things are clear. The 49-year-old teacher, Rafe Esquith, is a genius and saint. The American education system would do well to imitate him. These children's lives have been changed by their year with this man. And it is not all about Elizabethan drama.

Mr. Esquith's pupils play guitar. They name the six states that border Idaho. They discuss whether Huckleberry Finn would be doing the right thing to turn in his friend Jim, a runaway slave. They visit the Lincoln Memorial on a class trip.

Their classroom world operates like the real one: with money. In this case the currency is play money, in which they are paid salaries. It costs more to sit at the front of the class than in the back. Not doing your homework brings a $50 fine. At Christmas, Mr. Esquith gives them real Barnes & Noble gift certificates.

But it is the yearlong study of a single Shakespearean play that symbolizes Mr. Esquith's methods and his success. It is thrilling to hear Brenda De Leon read a speech of Ophelia's beautifully, to watch Lidia Medina express Gertrude's pain and to see Alan Avila, who was considered a problem student by a previous teacher, tackle the title role of the melancholy Danish prince. At the outset, Mr. Esquith explains what "Hamlet" is about: death. "They're throwing skulls all over the graveyard," he says.

During Christmas vacation, the children in the play come in every day to work on it. Mr. Esquith tells the camera that this is teaching them discipline, teamwork and sacrifice. He is a man fond of mottoes: "Be nice and work hard." "There are no shortcuts." As Hamlet says: "Words. Words. Words."

But words have impact. This is clearest, on a class visit to the campus of U.C.L.A., Mr. Esquith's alma mater, when he tells the children: "This is the life you're working for. You can do this." He has Ivy League pennants on his classroom wall, gifts from former students who have gone on to those schools, to prove it.

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