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 Read the rest of this entry »

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