Wednesday, February 25, 2009


Across the street from me in the “good gray” city of Portland, Oregon, lived an atypical household with a daughter a little older than me. Glamorous, graceful, and carefully guided, this dark-haired, dark-skinned beauty was a role model for me. If I were lucky, I sometimes acquired her hand-me-down clothes in colors no one in my white bread, rurally-raised family would buy. In the last few months she has found me via the Internet and reads my blogs as well as sending emails about a life quite different from mine and yet very similar. That is, she has two daughters, a limited income, and an education much like mine, but she enjoys a night of Texas Hold’em Poker, fortified with Scotch in milk, though she lives back in Portland, not far from the high school we attended. These days it’s black. On the whole, she’d rather be in San Francisco visiting the very fine zoo.

Recently she sent me a rave review of “Hobart Shakespeareans,” a documentary about a school in Los Angeles that follows through the year a class of fifth graders who are studying Hamlet in order to perform it. Aside from their youth, the most salient aspect of these kids is that they are from a neighborhood of immigrants: Asian, Hispanic (If I’m using this term improperly, I apologize), maybe American Indian, “India-Indian,” South Pacifican (?), Phillipino. The faces are all brown and framed with straight black hair. Most speak a language other than English at home, but not the same “other.” These are the people I’m calling “tomorrow’s children.” Not because they are privileged. Their parents struggle economically and in the course of the movie someone was killed in front of the school so that it had to go into “lock-down.”

These kids didn’t choose to study Shakespeare: it is their teacher’s preoccupation. But also I think it would not be a stretch to identify these kids with Obama and Jindal, both brown and both with strong Pacific connections, both eloquent speakers in English. (Did I say that one of my Blackfeet friends voted for Obama because “he looks like me”?) Nor do I think “Slumdog Millionaire” is an accidental Oscar winner. The Pacific Era, long predicted, has arrived.

The first thing that means might surprise some people: a high value on education, including European-based education. Rafe Esquith has been teaching the fifth grade class at Hobart Elementary for 17 years. Each year, as an add-on, the class enacts a Shakespeare play with indelible performances by these small (some of the girls are truly tiny) people who clearly understand what they are doing. Part of the secret is children that age -- just after their nerves are fully myelinated (I’m reading about this in “Proust and the Squid.”) and just before the pubertal hormones and culture kick in -- hunger and thirst for learning. They are smart, and they are deeply impressionable if given a consistent and full-contact teacher. Rafe certainly is that. He is a believer and he is completely in sync with historical education traditions in the US.

Ironically, this puts him out of step with contemporary public schools and many of his fellow teachers who practice highly structured, prescribed, force-based but theoretically “fun,” grade-skewed methods. His principal, a Latina who gets the big picture, protects him from bad evaluations but cannot prevent his ostracism by jealous fellow teachers. Rafe himself says that his students sort into three groups: those who will learn no matter what the circumstances, those who are group-guided and will follow those leaders, and those who don’t care to learn or just can’t, but who will not be discipline problems if they see the group would scorn them.

The content of what he teaches is entirely traditional with one exception: guitars everywhere all the time, including rock n’ roll “sound tracks” for Shakespeare. It is striking to me that this is also true of the Blackfeet Immersion School in Browning and Barrus’ Cinematheque in Amsterdam. It means something about brain development. Since music is related to math, it seems a good omen. Also, rock n’ roll appears to be a global given: most young people and many older people respond to it viscerally.

Rafe Esquith
knows his Shakespeare down to his very core, and because he is in LA, he can bring in acting luminaries like Ian McKellan and Michael York to give the class a sense of significance and belonging. The youngsters deliver their memorized speeches with eloquence and precision a Hollywood actor can only admire. They understand deeply what they are saying. In fact, when Rafe -- looking them in the eye in a way only trust-based teaching will bear -- explains Hamlet’s choices, several of the children weep, welling up with emotional intensity. They recognize the dilemmas.

So now I’ll double back. On one level Obama and Jindal were sort of set up to be equivalent race cards: brown golliwog wonks that the beefy red-faced politicians and CEO’s behind the scenes hope will become a puppet show that entertains American voters while the power-brokers continue their raids and hoarding. They would treat Rafe’s class as a one-off phenomenon, a curiosity, the way they’d like to treat Obama/Jindal. They have not paid attention to Shakespeare or they would understand the plate tectonic shift of the conversation. They had better start reading Confucius.

One of the ways East and West have separated in the past centuries is that the East values the community and the West has lionized the individual. Surely the best reality is a balance between the two. China went far to the community, treating nonconformers with a bullet to the back of the head and billing the bullet to the family on grounds that they should have controlled that person. America went far to the individual, romanticizing murderers. In the West that lies so far west it’s East, we see suicide bombers, a betrayal of both self and community.

Rafe Esquith’s fifth graders are learning a citizenship created around great ideas, yet by calling out their own human-ness. They go to Washington, D.C., they go to South Dakota, they see the monuments. They do NOT go to Disneyland, which is in their backyard anyway. I have said before that these are “tomorrow’s people,” a mixture of Asian, Hispanic, Native American on both coasts and in the southern part of the US. They feel their affinity for each other, based on appearance underlaid by a genome that has long been the foundation of human settlement on these American continents, which makes them different from any subsequent Euro-immigration. They can break the black/white deadlock that holds us hostage and, hopefully, also the deadlocked two-party political system. Radical means going to the roots. It can be done with thought rather than violence.

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