Day 349 – Jaime Escalante

Jamie Escalante is a man of immense character, and the greatest Teacher I have ever encountered.  In a media world of Educators depicted overwhelmingly as villains, oppressors, and buffoons – Jamie stands out as living testimony of success in the vocation.  I am emboldened beyond words by his story.

Escalante was a teacher nearly his entire life.  Beginning his career in Bolivia as he was unceremoniously thrown into the profession; others saw his love of higher mathematics and skill at conveying knowledge and Jamie said “why not?”  He grew up amidst domestic abuse, crippling poverty, and revolution – none of which stymied his practice, but served only to prepare him for Teaching in the American ghetto.

What Jamie (or ‘Kemo’ as he came to be known) accomplished after moving to Garfield High, L.A. – caused ripples through the entire American Education system for decades.

The AP Calculus Exam is a test offered to high school students gifted in Mathematics.  The demands of this test are so rigorous that those who passed would be granted college credit.  A minute sliver of high school students took the test each year – the majority of schools didn’t even cover the material that needed to be studied.  AP Calc, it was thought, was reserved for the very rich, very privileged schools and communities which had the time and resources to study such advanced math – and who were actually headed for college.

Jamie Escalante turned this classist axiom on its head – through massive effort on his own part, a loving mastery of calculus, and a fiery single-mindedness rarely glimpsed in humanity, he was able to build up in his students a masterful grasp of college-level calculus.  To the point that he motivated 18 of his impoverished, Latino students – many of whom were involved in gangs, had second and third jobs, or were pregnant at 17 – to take a calculus exam that would count for college credit.

18 out of 18 students passed.

This results shocked the Educational community in east L.A..  For many, this major upset was proof that economic status or race had no bearing on the potential for intelligence.  For others – this seemed too good to be true.  Unfortunately for Mr. Escalante and his class, this group of doubters included the American Exam Board.

It was decided that this “anomaly” was not a miracle of hard work, but was in fact the result of cheating – crushingly, the governmental body that controlled standardized testing in America revoked the test scores.

In what would become the ultimate underdog story, and with all legal routes exhausted, Escalante decided the only course of action was to retake the test.  After nearly two months away from calculus, Jamie invited his Math students into his house for 48 hours of cramming.  It was an inconceivable feat – to relearn so much.

Again, all 18 students passed – proving without a shadow of a doubt that they had indeed learned what Jamie had taught them.

Over the next 4 years, Garfield High would earn enough passing AP Calc exams to put them in a percentile bracket with the richest schools in the Nation – more than every school in their district combined.

Jamie used a Bolivian word frequently when talking to his students.  The word is Ganas – which means ‘urgent desire’.  He was always on a ceaseless hunt for the Ganas in his students.  The burning passion that broke through all limitation, outward and within.  He was at war with mediocrity – believing fiercely in a youth’s intrinsic respect for hard work.  He demanded more than students thought they had to give – at once instilling friendship and fear.  I believe his philosophy can be adiquately summarized in this saying of his:

 “The most important thing is not knowing the subject.  The most important thing is transmitting the knowledge.”

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