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A closer look at the Mark Twain quote that led to ‘teacher jail’

Mike Szymanski | July 15, 2015



Rafe Equith

Rafe Esquith

Just what was it that landed Rafe Esquith, a nationally-renowned teacher, in LA Unified’s “teacher jail”?

A line from Mark Twain, his lawyer said in a letter to the district.

Esquith’s lawyer, Ben Meiselas, told the district no parent had complained, nor had a student complained. LAUSD officials, ever more sensitive to classroom issues and protections of students since the Miramonte case, have not commented on all the allegations.

Yet now, Esquith finds himself in hot water, now facing questions that go well beyond why he found a passage in “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” so amusing.

It apparently started when a technology coordinator who was in his Hobart Elementary School classroom on March 19 thought that what he said may have been a bit too much for his fifth graders, according to a chronology of events in the letter. She told the principal, Jonathan Paek. When he confronted Esquith, the teacher said the quote should be taken in the literary context that it was made.

Esquith said he had been making a joke about LAUSD’s not funding the arts and sciences, according to Meiselas. Esquith told the students that if enough money wasn’t raised for their annual Shakespearean play, which Esquith was funding from his own pocket and from private donations, that “we will all have to play the role of the king in Huckeberry Finn.”

Then, he read the offending excerpt:

“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.

“And,… well, never mind the rest of his outfit—it was just as wild, but it was really funny. The people nearly died laughing. And when the king finished prancing around and capered off stage, they roared and clapped and raged and guffawed until he came back and did it all over again.”

Paek asked Esquith to sign a letter of apology to acknowledge that the statements might be viewed as “serious” and may have been made “others uncomfortable,” according to the letter. Before consulting with an attorney, Esquith signed the apology, which reads:

“I am deeply and sincerely sorry that any comment someone hear, or thought they heard, has anyone uncomfortable. I am a teacher who prides himself on professionalism. I dress immaculately for the job. Over a thousand teachers a year come to my class to seek my guidance about the profession of teaching. As a proud teacher, I am deeply saddened by this situation.”

Superintendent Ramon Cortines issued a statement June 19 that said the initial investigation against Esquith is expected to end in August.

 

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