Yesterday I had the unique experience of watching a production of William Shakespeare’s The Tempest, acted, with musical accompaniment, entirely by a group of fifth graders. Friends of mine from Los Angeles, himself a teacher at the Hobart Boulevard public elementary school, had invited me to this year’s presentation by the Hobart Shakespeareans. As many of you know, punctuality has never been one of my virtues, and the 105 mile drive, coupled with the infamous LA traffic, had me sweating before I even took my seat. But once I had clamored over Kurt’s knees and nearly fallen into Heather’s lap, I settled in for nearly three hours of pure magic, and not just the magic of Propero, the magician of the Tempest.
Begun years ago by their remarkable teacher Rafe Esquith, the fifth grade Hobart Shakespeareans of Room 56 are a group of underserved, underfunded children of largely Korean and Mexican first generation parents. Many do not speak English when they arrive at school, many are on federally funded school lunch programs. But by the fifth grade, those children lucky enough to be in Room 56 have studied the works of Will to the extent that they produce, in full Elizabethan English tempered with the sounds of rock and roll, reggae and Beethoven, a Shakespearean masterpiece a year. When the lights went down yesterday, at 11 am, I was transported, and overwhelmed–and instantly moved to tears.
As an English major in college, the teaching of the humanities, and English in particular, has always been near and dear to my heart. I believe that by studying great works of literature, and Shakespeare in particular, one can experience the breadth and scope of human emotion—joy, sorrow, aspiration, suffering, love, longing, mystery and hope—in short, most of the qualities necessary to become a good doctor. Sadly, college premedical requirements do not include more than a cursory English class or two, mainly to make sure that a student can string together a few words to write a sentence. The world of science and medicine has become infinitely more complicated in the last several decades—there is so much to learn about biochemistry that taking on “extras” like an advanced literature class, or an art class or a philosophy class becomes a burden, instead of a pleasure. While many medical schools encourage non-science majors to apply, the truth of the matter is that humanities majors are significantly disadvantaged when it comes to taking the MCATs and showing publications on their resumes.
The Hobart Shakespeareans come to school at 7 am, and stay until 5 pm. They learn math, and science, and history and geography and government but lunchtime is reserved for rock and roll guitar lessons. They wear T-shirts with the face of William Shakespeare and the caption, Will Power. Judging from the college banners placed around the perimeter of room 56, and the names below them, ultimately they attend Yale, and Harvard, and UCLA and Stanford, as often if not more than their more privileged peers. And many of them will become doctors. They live by the motto: “Be Nice. Work Hard.”
We can all take a lesson from that.
For more about Rafe Esquith and the Hobart Shakespeareans, go to www.hobartshakespeareans.org