February 12, 2001 12:00 PM

Justice Clarence Thomas was so moved by what he had just heard at the U.S. Supreme Court that he led a standing ovation, then tearfully declared, “This may be one of the most significant things that has ever happened in this building.”

It wasn’t the oral arguments of high-priced lawyers that had touched the normally stoic Thomas in 1999. It was the stirring readings given by a group of fourth and fifth graders on the responsibilities of living in a free society. The 45 children were students at Hobart Boulevard Elementary School in Central Los Angeles. And thanks to a remarkable teacher named Rafe Esquith, they’re quite accustomed to performing brilliantly, though usually it’s Shakespeare, not civics lessons, that the kids recite.

At a time when privileged college students often feel overmatched when it comes to reading the Bard’s dramas, Esquith, 46, successfully leads inner-city 10-year-olds from immigrant Central American and Korean families in mastering Shakespeare’s major works. His class studies one play in depth each year—currently it’s King Lear—and then performs it at Shakespeare festivals and across the United States. Esquith, who has won national teaching awards from Disney and Parents magazine, is a tough-love taskmaster. He makes all his kids study hard in math and history, read the classics and play an instrument. And it works: The Hobart Shakespeareans, as Esquith’s students are known, consistently score in the top 5 to 10 percent nationally in standardized tests. “It’s an indelible message,” says Abigail Thernstrom, co-author of America in Black and White: One Nation, Indivisible, “that hard work and self-discipline can change one’s life for the better.”

Esquith and his troupe are especially respected by actors and directors. “The first time I saw them do The Comedy of Errors,” marvels Hal Holbrook, “I said to Rafe, ‘I can tell as an actor that they know what they’re saying.’ ” Sir Ian McKellen, no stranger to Shakespeare, comes to L.A. every year to see the kids perform. “Sometimes he has to fly all night to come to the play and get right back on a plane,” says Esquith. When some of Esquith’s former students performed at Shakespeare’s Globe theater in London in 1999, director Sir Peter Hall was so impressed he cast a few as fairies in the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Los Angeles performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. “My kids being directed by the best living Shakespearean director,” says an awed Esquith. “How cool is that?”

Not nearly as cool as the devotion of their teacher, whose program Oprah Winfrey found so inspirational that she donated $100,000 last fall. Until he bought a van recently, Esquith, who earns $39,000 a year, used to insist that his wife, Barbara Tong, 58, a nurse, take the family car to work; he would walk two hours to school, leaving at 4:30 a.m., through some of L.A.’s worst gang territory. “I’ve taught a lot of their little brothers and sisters,” says a sanguine Esquith. “They looked out for me.”

A native Angeleno, Esquith learned about loss and survival early. His social worker father, Joseph, died in 1964, when Esquith was 9. His mother, Claire, juggled jobs to support Esquith—who received a degree in social work from UCLA in 1975—and his brother David, now 52, a medical social worker in L.A. Before his mother died in 1981, Esquith says he promised her that he “would make a difference.” He has done so since 1985, when he left a middle-class public school for Hobart, in one of L.A.’s poorest neighborhoods, where he felt he was more needed.

Until 1991, when he married Tong, the mother of four children, Esquith seemed headed for permanent bachelorhood. “One woman told me, ‘I could compete with another woman, but I can’t compete with a bunch of 10-year-olds,’ ” he recalls. Tong supports Esquith’s commitment to teaching, even when he maxes out their credit cards treating students to concerts, museums and restaurants so they will know there is a world beyond barred windows and security gates. They return the favor, arriving at school nearly two hours before the 8 a.m. bell to study with their teacher. Former students, some now in college, show up on weekends to tutor the current crop. More important than what they get, says Esquith, is what they give back: They volunteer in the community and perform at teachers’ conferences. “I wouldn’t be doing my job if they were only smart,” he says.

They are smart—and then some. “Rafe is getting us ready for life,” says Andrew Kim, 10. “We’re going to have a better future because of what we’re doing now.”

Christina Cheakalos

Karen Grigsby Bates in Los Angeles

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