LA School Suspends Teacher… For Reading Mark Twain

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Rafe Esquith, a teacher at Los Angeles’s Hobart Boulevard Elementary School, has been barred from teaching. Just because he read a passage from the iconic novel, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, by Mark Twain, to his students. A book that virtually every student will graduate having read.

Esquith, described by some news sites as “the world’s greatest teacher,” is a nationally-renowned teacher–who received multiple awards for his work and has written several books on teaching.

But if you’re the Los Angeles Unified School District, his accomplishments don’t matter–not when he read a passage from what’s long been considered one of the seminal works of American literature. Esquith was apparently suspended from class after another teacher complained about his “controversial” reading choice.

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn has certainly been increasingly controversial in recent years, largely due to its racial language–which was a satiric choice by Mark Twain, who was notably anti-slavery.

But the passage Esquith read didn’t even deal with slavery or race directly. It describes two circus performers that Huck Finn met during the course of the novel, nicknamed “the duke” and “the king”:

“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.”

While it’s certainly a colorful passage from a 130-year-old novel, it shouldn’t be especially controversial. Certainly not when it’s taught in an academic setting.

Advocates of academic freedom, and even Esquith’s teachers’ union, are in rare agreement. They consider this to be a massive violation of protocol–not to mention, a completely unfair reason for the school district to suspend him.

“When you quote Mark Twain and you go to teacher jail, your reputation is trampled on and ignorant bureaucrats assume the role of judge and jury in the face of a baseless allegation which has already been found meritless by the California Teacher Credentialing Committee,” Esquith’s attorney, Mark Geragos, said. “Sadly, it is the students, their families and the community that suffers.”

Los Angeles Unified hopes to have a final assessment on the “controversy” before school begins again in August.