credit: biography.com

credit: biography.com

The American Library Association keeps track of the books that people try to ban. There is one particular book virtually every American has heard of, if not necessarily read, that people on the left and the right try to ban every year. It made the ALA’s list of top 100 banned/challenged books for 2000-2009 (it’s #14, but there is no “the” in the actual title). It has been lauded since first published in 1884, and Ernest Hemingway, winner of the Pulitzer and Nobel Prizes for literature at a time when those awards actually meant something more than adherence to leftist philosophy, called it the book from which all modern American novels come.

Have you guessed it? Right! You get extra credit! Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain.

I teach the book each year to my AP class. It is their introduction to the analysis of great literature, and to the necessity of stepping up their intellectual efforts for the coming year. It is their first serious attempt at literary criticism. I don’t mean the silly slop that substitutes for Lit. Crit. these days. We don’t see the oppression of women, homosexual themes, racism, microaggression, triggers or LGBTQWERTY hidden on every page. We discover what’s actually there and help the kids figure out why they couldn’t see it at first.  In understanding the mind of Twain, we understand his times, our history, and ourselves just a little better. For tenth graders, I can’t imagine beginning the year and a new path of understanding literature with any other work.

But here we go again–still. From the LA Times:

Rafe Esquith credit: latimes

Rafe Esquith
credit: latimes

Attorneys for a nationally recognized Los Angeles Unified teacher, who was removed from his classroom after allegations of misconduct, are issuing an ultimatum to district administrators: publicly apologize and let him return to work, or get sued.

Rafe Esquith, a longtime educator at Hobart Boulevard Elementary School who has written several books on teaching and received multiple awards for his work, has not been allowed to return to school since district officials launched an investigation in March.

Three months later, L.A. Unified officials have not clearly outlined the allegations against the popular teacher, said his attorney Mark Geragos. But Geragos said he learned that the investigation stemmed from a complaint by another teacher after Esquith read to a class a passage from ‘Adventures of Huckleberry Finn’ by Mark Twain.

What could possibly have caused Esquith’s suspension? Progressives want to ban Huck Finn because “nigger” frequently appears in the book, and for a variety of other politically correct reasons. Conservatives often want to ban it because children are often depicted as getting the better of adults, and some think the book includes homosexual references, such as when Jim–a runaway slave–and Huck are floating, naked, down the Mississippi on a raft in the summer. They are, of course, washing their only clothing–the clothes on their backs, and bathing and cooling off using the only means at their disposal. There isn’t the slightest intimation of sexuality in the book, homosexual or otherwise.

The passage, which is much longer, includes this section: ‘The duke and the king worked hard all day, setting up a stage and curtain and row of candles for footlights. … At last, when he’d built up everyone’s expectations high enough, he rolled up the curtain. The next minute the king came prancing out on all fours, naked. He was painted in rings and stripes all over in all sorts of colors and looked as splendid as a rainbow.

The Duke and King are two con men who entangle themselves with Huck and Jim. Their antics, such as the supposed play depicted in the excerpt, shows that honest men can’t be conned. The townspeople who saw that display were so embarrassed, they didn’t tell their friends what happened, allowing them all to come and be fleeced at subsequent “performances.” The Duke and King come to an appropriately bad end when they go too far in their con games, and Huck, as always, displays his good heart and strong moral character. The excerpt is just part of many important moral lessons Twain teaches in the book.

Esquith was, of course, kept from his children, and is prohibited from setting foot in his school. The case has been heard by the state teacher licensing authority, which has cleared Esquith.

When you quote Mark Twain you go to teacher jail, your reputation is trampled on and ignorant bureaucrats assume the role of judge and jury in the face of a baseless allegation which has already been found meritless by the California Teacher Credentialing Committee,’ Geragos said. ‘Sadly, it is the students, their families and the community that suffers.’

District officials declined to provide details, except to say that ‘the goal is to complete the investigation before school starts in August.

This is absolute nonsense. The school district needs five to six months for its “investigation?” Investigation of what? Reading an excerpt from one of the most meaningful and influential–for good–books ever read to children?  What they’re actually doing is trying to figure out whether they can get away–politically–with firing Esquith.

Esquith, as one might imagine, has received widespread support from parents and elsewhere. His attorney noted:

This is somebody who has given his whole life to teaching and being in the classroom and has been recognized as one of the most unbelievable teachers out there. It’s the personification of ‘no good deed goes unpunished.’

There is more:

Esquith’s nonprofit, the Hobart Shakespeareans, had to cancel 12 performances of ‘The Winter’s Tale,’ which were set to begin April 23.

Parent Annie Han said she is not sure whether she will send her son to the Koreatown school next year, if Esquith does not return.

Esquith’s students–5th graders in a school with primarily low income Korean and Hispanic students–produce a play by Shakespeare each year.  Esquith raises almost all of the money from outside sources.

As a parent, it’s devastating,’ Han said. ‘I grew to respect and love him not just as teacher of my children but as a person. I know so many of his fifth graders cried every night because they were graduating and they were going to have to do that without him.

In such cases, there is always more than is apparent. Jay Matthews at The Washington Post, provides that background:

According to Meiselas [an attorney in Geragos’ firm], Esquith was rehearsing with his students for this year’s play and reading from a section of Huckleberry Finn about the duke and the king, merry actors who provide some of the book’s comedy. The Room 56 students were practicing Shakespeare, not Twain, but Esquith thought the passage was relevant. In one performance, Esquith read: ‘The king came prancing out on all fours, naked. He was painted in rings and stripes all over in all sorts of colors and looked as splendid as a rainbow.’

Meiselas said Esquith quipped that if he couldn’t raise enough support for the annual play, he guessed the class would have to similarly perform naked.

Esquith was joking. He does that a lot, as anyone who knows him has long been aware of. The school district has provided no significant funds for the annual play and Esquith’s many field trips and other projects, but his work has attracted many wealthy and influential supporters, so he was not expressing a real worry. The Shakespearean plays are very low-budget, since they are done in his small classroom with the audience on risers and the many musical instruments mostly donated.

But a teacher who was in the room took him seriously, reported this to the principal and the principal reported it to the district. From there on, Meiselas said, the district has been conducting an open-ended investigation with no apparent charges and no due process for Esquith. No child has complained. No parent has complained. The teacher who made the first report e-mailed him in April to say ‘I just want you to know that I am here for you . . . and I wish you the best resolution possible!

The Japanese have a relevant aphorism: “the nail that sticks up gets hammered down.” People who excel get squashed that those that do not excel may feel good about themselves. I don’t know Esquith or the LA District, apart from many national stories suggesting it is a wasteful and low performing mess, but it sounds very much like that is what is happening in this story. Esquith is just too good and too well-loved by his students and their parents.

We need to keep in mind that some teachers are “loved” by their students because they try to be their homies, demand little or nothing of them, and let them get away with murder. Esquith apparently is not one of those. He’s the real thing, and that’s what frightens the average, and far too many administrators, who have lashed out against Esquith’s children:

The questions being asked and the letters Esquith has received indicate the district is now intent on killing off some of the programs and trips that make his class so good. A district official wrote to tell him his students’ annual summer trip to Oregon for the Shakespearean Theatrical Festival must be canceled. He was told to report his students’ contact addresses so their parents can be informed that ‘the trip is not authorized or sponsored by the District.

This is a common sore spot for administrators. They refuse to allocate sufficient funds to excellence in teaching, but always have money for administrative perks and useless buildings and other pet projects and facilities. When a teacher dares to raise money in other ways, or spends their own money, that’s intensely threatening to corrupt administrators.  Mrs. Manor and I spend as much as $2000 a year on our students.  We do it quietly.

This is the way they treat one of the most famous and conscientious teachers in the country, who has worked 12-hour days for several decades, usually keeping his classroom open during summer, holidays and on some weekends. Hundreds of former students come to visit. He advises many of them on how to get into the best high schools and how to prepare for college. He asks everyone to call him ‘Rafe.’ The main page of the school’s official Web site says it is ‘The Proud Home of Rafe Esquith and the Hobart Shakespeareans.

Imagine that: a fifth grade teacher convincing low income kids to become passionate about Shakespeare. Can’t have that. For such administrators, fame in a teacher is a bug, not a feature.  Matthews continues:

There are no suggestions that he has harmed any children. But as many of the great teachers I have written about over the years have told me, if you work hard and show administrators how much better our schools could be if they took their responsibilities seriously, you are going to become a target for abuse.

Fortunately, Matthew’s point is not universal. Administrators don’t always, or even mostly, behave as they have in this case. Esquith obviously threatens them greatly. In most cases, truly exceptional teachers are simply ignored. Not for them “Teacher of the Year” awards or other recognition. But their students revere them, as do their parents, and the kids really learn and grow. For such teachers, as long as they’re allowed to teach to the best of their ability, that’s enough. Whether Esquith will be allowed to return to the classroom, and allowed to continue to excel to the benefit of his students, remains the question.

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