Thursday, October 22, 2015

The Harrison Bergeron Effect

Guys like Rafe Esquith could really screw up a new teacher like me, once upon a time.

Afire to become an energetic, creative, effective teacher as quickly as possible — I said new teacher, after all, not young teacher — I devoured every book Esquith wrote about his teaching practices and philosophy.

He is an amazing, too-good-to-be-true teacher at a public elementary school in a low-income neighborhood of mainly Korean and Latino communities near downtown Los Angeles. Or was.

After being removed from his classroom last spring after a career of some 30 years, Esquith was fired this month by the Los Angeles Board of Education.

Now he is part of a $1 billion class action suit against the district, alleging that it uses intimidation and baseless charges to fire older, higher-paid teachers. The district confines suspended teachers, the suit alleges, to so-called "teacher jails," administrative rooms where teachers can't teach and do little or no work at all.

The teacher jails are designed to break teachers' spirits and make them leave, the suit says.

The district has not responded to the lawsuit or to Esquith's firing, citing personnel privacy.

News reports indicate that a joke Esquith told to his class mushroomed into an investigation of alleged inappropriate touching of minors, suspect material on Esquith's home computer, and mishandling of funds for a nonprofit group that helps pay for theatrical plays his class stages.

Maybe I should back up a bit. Here's how amazing Esquith is (or was; or will be again, I hope; I'm using present tense, nonetheless):
  • His class of fifth graders each year produces and performs a full-length Shakespeare play, as the Hobart Shakespeareans (Hobart Boulevard is the name of the school).
  • The plays have attracted high-level attention, and Esquith has been able to secure theater lighting and other equipment that transformed his classroom into legitimate theater. He has support from actors Sir Ian McKellen (Gandalf of The Lord of the Rings) and Hal Holbrook, among others, who continue to stand by him.
  • Esquith teaches a group of students to play musical instruments, and they form the band for the Shakespeare play, performing rock music they choose as appropriate to back up the play.
  • Keep in mind, this is all after-school stuff: He teaches a full day of school in general subjects.
  • He teaches math through baseball, showing students how to keep score and calculate batting averages and earned-run averages and other statistics, and takes them to Los Angeles Dodgers games to hone their skills.
  • He gives all students jobs as part of a long arc in teaching them responsibility. With the classroom currency, students can rent or buy their desks. The closer the desks are to the front of the room, the higher the rent, and students with money-management savvy can buy up desks and charge rent to other students.
  • He provides after-school and weekend tutoring not only for Hobart students but for high schools who had moved on from Hobart.
  • Esquith leads students with a simple guiding principle: Work hard. Be nice.
Now you will understand the context of this "joke." Esquith was reading "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" with his class (which by itself is unusual for fifth graders today) and got to the part where a character appeared on a stage naked except for painted stripes on his body.

Esquith apparently told the students that if they weren't able to raise sufficient money to stage their Shakespeare play that year, they might have to perform on stage just like this character. Someone — a teacher, apparently — took offense, and one thing led to another, which led to Esquith's dismissal.

His work has attracted notoriety and national acclaim. His books reveal a world in which Esquith seemingly works 24/7 for his classroom, where Room 56 appears far and above what his colleagues can (or are allowed to) do, and has led to tensions not only in his school but across the district.

I asked Esquith as much after reading most of his books.
"I may have misread important parts of your book," I told him in a 20-questions letter, "but I get the idea that your relationship with some or many teachers at your school (and with the administration) is tense and often cold and combative; I don’t see how many or any teachers at Hobart can compete with you, and I wonder about the fallout from that, and how and whether you team up with your colleagues; moreover, upper grades must often seem a letdown to many of your students. I’m certainly not criticizing your work; I’m just wondering how others can carry on the quality you exhibit."
Esquith answered me. By phone. In addition to all the tasks he undertakes, all the entitities and interests that require his attention, he took the time to call me.

Many of his answers have blurred in memory, but he was as on fire with encouragement of me as he appears in his books. He told me to work within the system as a new teacher, and get my feet under me, eventually working toward creative ways in my teaching career. Rafe Esquith took time out to give a stranger a pep talk, to raise me up the way he emboldened his students.

For better or worse, my teaching career didn't go far.

I found it extremely challenging to carry out the duties of teacher as outlined by the principal of my school, let alone try anything that was not directly related to testing. Don't tell anyone, but I did read children's novels to my class — after lunch, with the lights turned off so students would have a calm place, but also so the principal wouldn't be able to see right away that I was reading unauthorized books, should he pop in unannounced. He had advised me that reading novels would take away from the language arts instruction I needed to provide students.

Sure, I recognized I was just starting out and not to beat myself up about not mastering my new profession right away. But it was hard to remind myself that my warm-hearted colleague, who helped me immensely my first year, had been teaching for 30 years and knew a lot about being a teacher and an adult leader of children.

I will never forget having a really bad day — and it seemed everyone on campus was having a bad day — and carrying the world on my shoulders when I retrieved my class after lunch recess. While I was grousing to my students about not standing in a straight line, after all these days of instruction and expectation, I looked over my shoulder to see my kindly mentor playing follow-the-leader with his class, hopscotching and imitating an airplane as he led his students to their class. He had, in his wisdom, defused the tensions of their day.

If I couldn't see my way to that kind of spontaneous wisdom, how was I going to come anywhere close to the level of Rafe Esquith and what he could do? Esquith was inspiring and defeating at once; he gave me the same elated depression I get from great illustrators when I gaze too long at their work and wonder why I can't do that.

Should allegations against Esquith prove true — and would we ever know? I wonder — then all bets are off, of course. Action against Esquith was part of a new quick-response program to ferret out child abusers and molesters among the Los Angeles school district's teachers.

Getting rid of molesters is paramount, but I suspect the program was used against Esquith in what I call the Harrison Bergeron Effect.

The title character of Kurt Vonnegut Jr.'s short story, the gifted and athletic Harrison Bergeron was literally weighted down and hamstrung by devices meant to make him equal in ability with the rest of society, whose minds were too distracted by their own devices to raise a care of thought about him or anyone else. All were burdened equally and made equally ugly in this future world — except for those in charge.

I suspect that the district not only didn't want to pay Esquith the salary due him, but that they wanted to bring him down because they couldn't elevate all the other teachers, all the resources and nurturing, to his level.

Remove arguably the most famous public school teacher in the country, and the curve is no longer skewed.

As a short-time teacher, as one who had to unlock repressed memories from childhood in order to muster a spine as teacher, I suspect that public education began as good ideas and good intentions. When I was a kid, I suspect that teaching was still a creative art, and that the most creative teachers could thrive; I'd like to think that my brilliant sixth grade teacher, Loren Jackson, was the shining example of public education, not an outlier, that he demonstrated his creative lessons in full view and favor of the district supporting him.

Since then, I suspect that the good intentions layered and folded in on themselves, and money and power corrupted as it always does, and that public education now is a playpen of money and power and internecine war and byzantine rules, and the relentless demand for data and pressure from worldwide perception, that students, frankly, get in the way.

The very people public education is supposed to help, for the sake of our future, is the least important part of the machine. Great teachers are great despite the system, not because of it.

The system seeks to grind Rafe Esquith to dust, and I hope he emerges free to teach again, dignity returned, for fortunate children to come.

I hope you agree. Don't think of Harrison Bergeron then, who broke free of his encumbrances and danced as his body bid, only to be killed by those in power. And no one could muster a care or thought for his death.

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