Judge Jonathan Weiss is hot for teacher.
There are no shortcuts.
Teaching is an incredibly underappreciated, overworked, and underpaid profession, and yet teachers are the biggest influence on the lives of our young people next to the parents themselves. Many initially get into teaching for idealized reasons—to make a difference, to shape young minds, to sow the seeds that will grow into the joys of learning. And yet, after years of indifference, internal politics, frustration, and scholastic bureaucracy, these intentions often get watered down to the point where the only thing of relevance left is a steady paycheque. The Hobart Shakespeareans is about one teacher who refused to succumb to the pitfalls of his profession and continued stay focused on his life's work.
Facts of the Case
Every year for the past 20 years, Rafe Esquith has been teaching 9 and 10 year-olds at Hobart Elementary, an inner-city school situated in one of the poorer and tougher neighbourhoods of Los Angeles.
That alone would be an accomplishment. But what's even more amazing is that for the past 20 years Rafe has also made a difference in the lives of practically every student he's taught by inspiring them to rise above and beyond society's expectations of them. The culmination of his passion, and the children's commitment, is represented by a year-end production of Hamlet.
Rafe Esquith is an exceptional teacher. The Hobart Shakespeareans is a good documentary. That's the trouble with reviewing documentaries—the subject can often overshadow the medium.
If you're looking for some kind of mind-blowing cinematic vision you won't find it in The Hobart Shakespeareans. It's a straightforward hand-held or locked-off camera experience. Nothing fancy. If, however, you're looking for subject matter that will both uplift and depress you at the same time—look no further.
The uplifting part is pretty self-evident. Here are kids that by all rights shouldn't be scholars. At home English isn't even the primary spoken language. They're poor. They're surrounded by violence. And the American Dream has failed their families in more ways than they themselves could imagine. Yet under the tutelage of Rafe Esquith they are treated with respect, with dignity and are expected to produce—which they do with flying colours.
Students under Rafe have gone on to Harvard, Yale, you name it—and they haven't forgotten the teacher that let them know that if they wanted it badly enough they could get there no matter what society told them. In fact, it's because of some of these former students that Rafe is able to continue teaching in the manner in which he deems necessary.
When he first began teaching he had to hold down four jobs in order to raise the money needed to take his kids on the two school trips a year he decided to implement. He wanted them to see something outside of their own neighbourhoods. He wanted them to be able to go to Washington D.C., to Mount Rushmore, to the Vietnam Memorial and touch democracy, view history, and experience sacrifice. It was great for the kids; it was not so great for Rafe.
Luckily for him, a former student stepped in—now a graduate of Yale Law School—who incorporated Rafe's class and helped him set it up as a non-profit charity—a charity that now gets donations from all over the world—which lets Rafe focus on what he does best: teaching. Today Rafe Esquith could have his pick of any school, public or private, in the country if not the world, and yet he stays where it all began, at Hobart Elementary. Not because teaching is his job, but because it's his passion.
Not impressed yet? Then maybe a class visit from Michael York or Ian McKellan will get your attention. That's right, both D'Artagnan and Gandalf (or Magneto—take your pick) make appearances to further encourage Rafe's students in their pursuit of Shakespearian excellence.
So where does the depressing part come into play? That's easy. It's the second you consider that somewhere down the line teaching became a job instead of a vocation; or when you realize that Rafe Esquith is in a vast minority of teachers who still give a damn.
That doesn't mean kids need to be taken on more field trips. It doesn't mean they need to put on Shakespearian plays. And it also doesn't mean that every kid needs to end up at an Ivy League School.
What it does mean is that a kid who asks a question in a classroom deserves an answer that he or she can understand. And it doesn't matter if that kid needs to hear it once, a dozen or a hundred times. Does it have to be done while all the other kids sit twiddling their thumbs? Absolutely not. But time needs be found—it has to be—because nothing should stand in the way of a child who seriously wants to learn. Instead, these kids are usually labeled troublemakers or worse, slow—which, as you can imagine, does wonders not only to their self-esteem but also to their pursuit of learning.
Now this is the kind of talk that gets teachers angry. And right it should—but not for the reasons they'd probably profess. It's very interesting that no other teachers from Hobart were interviewed for this documentary. There is a short snippet from the principal though that pretty much explains why. She basically says that the teachers Rafe works with don't give him the same kind of credit the rest of the world does and the reason, though never mentioned, is pretty obvious: jealousy.
One needs to remember that before the documentary, before the celebrity visitors, before the accolades, donations, and speaking engagements Rafe Esquith taught a class. He didn't inherit this program; he created it from the ground up—because he cared. And it's hard to argue with his results.
Are you going to find this kind of debate in The Hobart Shakespeareans? No, you're not. And in some way that is disappointing as well.
For what it is, The Hobart Shakespeareans is a wonderful tribute to one man and his passion for teaching—but this documentary had the potential to explore a whole lot more than the Shakespearean aspect of Rafe's class. It touches on it. It dances around it. It even gives us sneak peeks at what it could have been. But it never actually delves into the heart of the matter—which, to put succinctly is this: why aren't all teacher's succeeding at this level?
Perhaps it's more inspirational to see a group of kids who weren't meant to succeed put on a triumphant performance of Hamlet than to explore the real reasons why these kids haven't had the chance to succeed before they entered Rafe's class. The only problem with this approach is that it poses far more questions about our school system than it actually answers—or even tries to answer.
This is where the DVD medium should shine. The Hobart Shakespeareans was produced and edited for television—so there's only so much time the filmmaker can spend on any one aspect of his subject. On DVD, however, there's the opportunity to load as much footage and as many points of view as you can fill onto a disc. There are a couple of extras provided; the most viable being an interview with the filmmaker—but even that's not terribly enlightening. Again, the potential for some seriously added value extras was phenomenal. Imagine being able to watch the complete production of Hamlet these kids have worked so hard on from start to finish. Imagine watching the complete speech Rafe makes at a teaching conference. Imagine attempts at interviewing other teachers—not just at Hobart, but from other schools as well. You're going to have to imagine it because you won't find any of them here.
The Hobart Shakespeareans is a good starting point for serious discussion on how vital it is for kids to feel that learning is a right, their right, and not a punishment.
Teachers who maintain their passion for instilling the love of learning in our kids are not guilty. Furthermore they deserve a great deal of compensation from those who treat teaching as a mere job and a great deal of respect and admiration from the rest of us.
Give us your feedback!
What's "fair"? Whether positive or negative, our reviews should be unbiased, informative, and critique the material on its own merits.
Scales of Justice
• Filmmaker Interview
Review content copyright © 2006 Jonathan Weiss; Site design and review layout copyright © 2015 Verdict Partners LLC. All rights reserved.