Lighting Their Fires: Raising Extraordinary children in a Mixed-up,
Muddled-up, Shook-up World
By Rafe Esquith
Viking Adult, 2009, $24.95; 208 pages.
It's likely that Rafe Esquith is the nation's best-known
teacher. He has pocketed an impressive number of awards and honors,
including, even, membership in the vaunted Order of the British Empire,
a nifty designation he picked up by way of directing the Hobart
Shakespeareans--a troupe of young actors plucked from his 5th-grade
class at Los Angeles's Hobart Elementary School--who travel the
world performing the Bard's works. Esquith has also appeared on
Oprah and been praised by the Dalai Lama.
And he has written widely--op-eds, articles, and books.
Esquith's first volume on education, There Are No Shortcuts (2003),
is somewhat self-explanatory; his second, Teach Like Your Hair's on
Fire (2007), is less so. The eccentric title refers to an incident when
Esquith, deeply enmeshed in a science lesson, did not realize, until his
students began screaming, that he had set his hair alight with an
alcohol burner. A cooler-headed Esquith later explained the book's
theme on National Public Radio: "If I could care so much I
didn't even know my hair was on lire, I was moving in the right
direction as a teacher--when I realized that you have to ignore all the
crap, and the children are the only thing that matter."
Perhaps because Teach Like Your Hair's on Fire ended up a New
York Times best seller, Esquith has stuck with the ignescent symbolism
for his latest book, Lighting Their Fires. It's a guide of sorts,
the main point of which is that good children are made and not born. The
author recounts a trip he took with five students to watch a baseball
game at Dodger Stadium. They arrived early to take a tour, after which
their guide breathlessly confided to Esquith that the pupils were
"so confident but so sweet," and "so beautiful" that
they "glow." Then "she paused, searching for the right
adjective. 'They're extraordinary,' she said in almost
Esquith counters, "But here's the secret. These students
weren't born extraordinary--they became that way." And
Lighting Their Fires tells us how they did it.
They did it, unsurprisingly, by being taught by one of the
country's most dedicated and obsessive teachers, a man who believes
that low-income 5th graders for most of whom English is a second
language can learn to love Shakespeare. He also believes that hard work,
far more than talent or innate propensities, produces success. Before
taking the kids to see the Dodgers, Esquith taught them to score games
while they all watched the World Series on television, encouraged them
to play baseball daily on the playground, and required them to view Ken
Burns's 18 1/2-hour-long documentary, Baseball, over spring break.
When they attended a major-league game, they would enjoy it because they
worked at enjoying it.
But there's a difference between being a great teacher and a
great author, and the examples and lessons put forth in Lighting Their
Fires are soggy tinder when it comes to lighting a reader's
interest. Esquith trots out a lot of com-monsense stuff. That children
should learn the importance of being on time, or that they
shouldn't spend hours immobilized by television or computers,
aren't observations that will have any reasonable person shouting
eureka. Policy hounds won't find anything of substance in the book,
either, and are bound to be disappointed.
Most readers of Lighting Their Fires will be disappointed, in fact.
Allegedly an explanation of how to form "thoughtful and honorable
people," the book is really part self-help manual for parents and,
notwithstanding its preaching about the virtue of humility, part
self-aggrandizing memoir. Hobart Shakespearean that he is, Esquith
skillfully plays the role of the modest, righteous, self-fulfilled,
patient, and wise educator who--though surely he could work in other
more-prestigious and remunerative professions--nobly remains in the
classroom, quietly going about his saintly business. This is not
exaggeration. Examples of Esquith's self-absorbed, self-imposed
martyrdom are ubiquitous. Consider the book's first sentences:
Nice touch, adding that bit about "dedicated teachers and
administrators"; they're committed, of course, just not that
committed. A similarly sly autolatrous tactic, plentifully deployed, is
Esquith's portrayal of just about everyone he meets as well meaning
but misguided, whether it's the Dodger Stadium tour guide who
mistakenly believes that his angelic preteen coterie is
"extraordinary," or the TSA employee who can't comprehend
that his wholesome pupils would choose not to tote Game Boys onto an
airplane, or the flight attendant who can't grasp that his cherubic
students won't need DVD players for their traveling duration--that,
as Esquith tells her, ''they're going to read." (The
kids are going to ... read? Someone canonize this man!)
I could go on--for instance, Earnest Esquith gets himself cursed
out at the baseball game by two different spectators whose obnoxious
manner he publicly corrects, and he somehow validates his own actions by
quoting the injunction of Anne Frank's father to confront evil in
the world----but to do so would be like electrocuting fish in a barrel.
Suffice it to say that Esquith has, in Lighting Their Fires, ostensibly
written a book for adults. He shouldn't speak to them as if they
Liam Julian is a Hoover Institution research fellow and managing
editor of Policy Review.
As reviewed by Liam Julian
It was 5:00 p.m. on a Friday afternoon in May at Hobart Elementary
School in Los Angeles, and most of the dedicated teachers and
administrators had long since left campus. I wished I could have
escaped with them. I was exceedingly tired. It had been a
particularly long week.
In fact, it had been a long year.