Jaime Escalante died last month. I had just mentioned him on April 19th, when I was writing about Gonzalo and other youngsters from low-income neighborhoods who are taught soccer to build confidence and then learn to express their feelings by writing poetry for the first time.

Jaime Escalante

Jaime Escalante

Jaime was the teacher portrayed in the film “Stand and Deliver” who proved to the world that some poor, disadvantaged, minority kids could perform just as well academically as middle class, suburban white kids if given the opportunity to learn with a dedicated educator. In fact Jaime’s students did better on one SAT Advanced Placement test than kids in any other school in California and made teachers everywhere reconsider the potential of minority and economically deprived students in their classes. One obituary described him as the most famous teacher in the world.

He didn’t use sports as a way to build confidence. He used calculus. But I wanted to highlight his achievement anyway, because so much of sports has to do with self-image and mental attitude, belief in yourself, how to perform under pressure and in competition. Just like life.

I’ve seen the movie a few times, even last night, and it’s very inspiring. While the need to practice a sports skill is obvious, the parallel in the classroom is long hours of instruction, study, and practice taking tests and answering problems and questions. The film shows the kids signing a contract with their teacher—and their parents signing too—that commits them to come to special classes on weekends, during Christmas holidays, and early in the mornings before their regular classes

actor Edward James Olmos in the movie about Jaime

actor Edward James Olmos in the movie about Jaime

Jaime talked about “ganas,” the Spanish word for “desire.” You have to have it if you are going to put in the hours, succeed, make a difference in your outcome.

My friend Joe always talks about his “passion” for life, for his work (directing plays and running a theater). Not everyone has enthusiasm or passion. We are not sure you can manufacture it or pretend you have it or make a lot of progress without it.

But if you are determined or driven or incredibly focused, it’s more likely you WON’T be stopped or thwarted by the obstacles in front of any goal. Life is messy. People are messy, and jealous, and envious and don’t want to see others succeed and rise above their circumstances and make more money and receive accolades. People want to be superior to others—it’s a survival thing according to some social scientists and psychologists. If they can’t rise above you, they will try to keep you suppressed and beneath them—that’s one way they stay relatively superior.

Jaime overcame those hurdles. He inspired the kids who could barely imagine what potential he saw in them. Then there was the principal and the other teachers who said he was wasting his time on lazy Latinos and gang kids who were limited mentally and were lucky if they could “rise” to car repair jobs and waitresses. There was also the national college application testing (SAT’s) company that claimed the high grades his kids achieved must have been attained by cheating—and demanded a retest under carefully supervised conditions by the testing company’s personnel. There was violence against him, his own family’s struggles with his long hours and ridicule, and he even had a heart attack from the stress just before the first test.

There was even the skepticism from the parents of his students who were semi-literate and couldn’t understand the benefits of passing an advanced placement college course in calculus for high school kids who they were sure could never afford college even if they were accepted and had any desire to attend.

Under Jaime’s banner, the kids began to believe that they could succeed, that they were worth it, and that they owed it to themselves to ignore their “friends” who made fun of them and take a chance on a better future.

I will search for information on what happened to those 300 kids who completed Jaime’s AP Calculus course between 1982 and 1986. I am curious to see if their lives turned out any better than those who weren’t interested in the rarified path that Jaime showed them. I am sure they must have. Especially when I know about photographer Ben Fernandez, who created his Photo Film Workshop and taught ghetto kids how to use a camera and develop film. One of those youths became a Pulitzer Prize winning photojournalist with the New York Times, and two others ended up as a doctor and an architect.

What does this have to do with sports? You have to have “ganas” to improve or succeed. You have to believe you can do better and win. You have to be willing to practice for hours…and that is something else I plan to write about soon.

Until then, here are some words written about Jaime in a March 31st article by James Joyner, who first quotes the LA Times obituary by Elaine Woo:

“Jaime Escalante, the charismatic former East Los Angeles high school teacher who taught the nation that inner-city students could master subjects as demanding as calculus, died Tuesday. He was 79.

“The subject of the 1988 film “Stand and Deliver,” Escalante died at his son’s home in Roseville, Calif., said actor Edward James Olmos, who portrayed the teacher in the film. Escalante had bladder cancer.

“Jaime didn’t just teach math. Like all great teachers, he changed lives,” Olmos said earlier this month when he organized an appeal for funds to help pay Escalante’s mounting medical bills.

“Escalante gained national prominence in the aftermath of a 1982 scandal surrounding 14 of his Garfield High School students who passed the Advanced Placement calculus exam only to be accused later of cheating. The story of their eventual triumph — and of Escalante’s battle to raise standards at a struggling campus of working-class, largely Mexican American students — became the subject of the movie, which turned the balding, middle-aged Bolivian immigrant into the most famous teacher in America.

“Escalante was a maverick who did not get along with many of his public school colleagues, but he mesmerized students with his entertaining style and deep understanding of math. Educators came from around the country to observe him at Garfield, which built one of the largest and most successful Advanced Placement programs in the nation.

“Jaime Escalante has left a deep and enduring legacy in the struggle for academic equity in American education,” said Gaston Caperton, former West Virginia governor and president of the College Board, which sponsors the Scholastic Assessment Test and the Advanced Placement exams. “His passionate belief [was] that all students, when properly prepared and motivated, can succeed at academically demanding course work, no matter what their racial, social or economic background. Because of him, educators everywhere have been forced to revise long-held notions of who can succeed.”

Of course, it’s only true if you have a teacher like Escalante, who’s not only unusually talented but willing to work hours off the clock and able to convince students to do the same. Indeed, as Joanne Jacobs notes, Garfield’s calculus program collapsed entirely after Escalante’s departure.

Ironically, Escalante’s career at Garfield High didn’t last long after the movie brought him to fame.

Escalante’s rise came during an era decried by experts as one of alarming mediocrity in the nation’s schools. He pushed for tougher standards and accountability for students and educators, often irritating colleagues and parents along the way with his brusque manner and uncompromising stands.

He was called a traitor for his opposition to bilingual education. He said the hate mail he received for championing Proposition 227, the successful 1998 ballot measure to dismantle bilingual programs in California, was a factor in his decision to retire that year after leaving Garfield and teaching at Hiram Johnson High School in Sacramento for seven years.

He moved back to Bolivia, where he propelled himself into a classroom again, apparently intent on fulfilling a vow to die doing what he knew best — teach. But he returned frequently to the United States to speak to education groups and continued to ally himself with conservative politics. He considered becoming an education advisor to President George W. Bush, and in 2003 signed on as an education consultant for Arnold Schwarzenegger’s gubernatorial campaign in California.

…A life well lived but, alas, like that of other extraordinary achievers, not easily emulated. We can and should expect more of our teachers. But expecting them to all be Jaime Escalante is unreasonableness squared.