Rafe Esquith and Atticus Finch

If I read the Name of the Rose too early, I read To Kill a Mockingbird too late: my second year teaching. It was actually my visit to KIPP that did it- my TFA program director and one of the first Fisher Fellows (who had won the chance to start a new KIPP franchise school) were there, and they kept talking about a 5th grade teacher in Los Angeles they had gone to observe- “this guy has got to be the greatest teacher in the world.” He got the kids performing Shakespeare, he taught them musical instruments, he took them all over the country, he transformed these kids’ lives. And, (my program director and the Fisher  Fellow said), when they met with him after the observation, his advice was all about To Kill a Mockingbird: if you want to be a great teacher, be like Atticus Finch.

(This was honey to their ears: TFA was then, as always, invested in the rhetorical flourish that closing the Achievement Gap is the Civil Rights challenge of the next generation.)

The teacher, of course, was Rafe Esquith, already national Teacher of the Year, and future best-selling author, subject of hagiographic PBS documentaries, honorary Member of the British Empire, and…well, we’ll come back to that later. In any case, I went home and read the book the following week.

There’s nothing I can say about To Kill a Mockingbird that hasn’t been said. I knew the story already, I realized: I had seen a play of it in fifth grade, with the alleged-rape-and-lynching aspects downplayed. I enjoyed the book- there’s a reason everybody reads it- but I couldn’t entirely figure out Rafe Esquith’s comment. Atticus Finch endured mild opprobrium from his neighbors for doing his job and taking a modestly brave stand- his children are subsequently endangered less because  of the town’s racism than because Atticus exposed the dirty laundry of one particular poor white trash family to the town’s gaze. If doing your job in the face of ridicule and vocal criticism makes for a great teacher, everyone who has  faced down a class of middle-schoolers would make the grade.

I remembered my colleagues’ stories about Esquith, though, and so dutifully read Esquith’s books as they were released, watched the PBS documentary, and even went to see him speak at a school near the one I worked at when he visited with a few alumni from his class. In all, he comes across as a charismatic guy with near-limitless energy and quite-limitless enjoyment at being the center of attention. There is one electric moment in the PBS documentary: Ian McKellen visits the class and delivers a Hamlet soliloquy to the rapt 5th graders. There were also a few awkward moments that the editors left in, in particular when he stands up in front of the bus during a week-long field trip to DC and yells out “who wants to go back home to your crappy school and crappy neighborhood?” eliciting the expected “No!” from the class. You half expect him to add, “crappy homes and crappy families” to the list. There were similar moments of ickiness when I heard him speak in person. The former students he was traveling with (which you couldn’t help noticing were no longer mostly Hispanic, as in the PBS documentary, and were instead almost all Asian), would play their rock band instruments or recite some Shakespeare on cue and then Esquith would somewhat unnervingly declare “aren’t they ugly and untalented children?” to which the elderly man sitting next to me, said each time, “what an awful thing to say.”

Narcissism in some form is the congenital flaw of many successful teachers. My favorite teacher movie-School of Rock- works so well by both making the Jack Black character’s narcissism so utterly ridiculous- and also making clear how it is necessary in order to get the kids to do something genuinely cool.

Esquith’s classroom was often described in headlines as “a real life School of Rock,” since he would raise money for electric guitars and drums for the kids and have the kids perform as bands. Those were different times.  More recent headlines are about his firing as a result of allegations of inappropriate touching (and confirmed inappropriate emails.)

I haven’t read Go Set a Watchman (my wife, good former English teacher that she is, read it right away), but the horror of Atticus being revealed as a racist seemed all-too-appropriate for our times. The desire not just for idealized teachers and mentors, but for those who, like Atticus and Rafe Esquith, seem capable of mending in part the divisions of our world- is all too tempting, then and now.

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