Rafe Esquith’s classroom is dingy and cluttered, but it hardly matters. Within seconds inside it, it becomes clear why Esquith has been anointed as one of those magical teachers who propels his poor, immigrant students to impossible heights.
In less than an hour on a recent Tuesday, his fifth-graders, many of whom speak with traces of Korean or Spanish accents, recited from memory the opening scene of Shakespeare’s Macbeth. They played Riders on the Storm on guitar, keyboard and drums. They discussed the Constitution and described vivid details of Civil War battles. Then, when they sat down to take a geography test, many politely informed their teacher that Honduras was in the wrong place.
THE STUDENTS also were sophisticated enough not to take any notice as a photographer and reporter crowded into their cramped classroom. They are used to it, after all. Over the years, Esquith has been recognized by Queen Elizabeth II and President George W. Bush. Ian McKellen, the British actor, pops by to visit when he’s in L.A. Oprah Winfrey gave him a van.
Last month, Esquith had a new book out, his second, Teach Like Your Hair Is on Fire (Viking), and the media has again come calling to Room 56 at Hobart Boulevard Elementary School, a crowded, somewhat bleak campus that is one of the biggest elementary schools in the nation, with 2,000 students, more than three-quarters of whom come from families subsisting below the poverty level.