Escalante: The Best Teacher in America.
What he did, taking 18 seniors from East Los Angeles's gang-ridden James A. Garfield High School through the successful completion of the Educational Testing Service's Advanced Placement Calculus Exams in 1982, has of course practically become legend. It has earned him welldeserved honors from the barrios of East Los Angeles to the White House and been the subject of a wellreceived motion picture called Stand and Deliver But not until Matthews's fascinating, but rather unlikely, book (How many books get written about real-life high-school teachers?), have we been offered a full account of this remarkable tale of modern-day life in a Latino ghetto.
Matthews, the Los Angeles bureau chief of The Washington Post, first heard of Escalante seven years ago through a newspaper article about 14 Garfield students suspected of cheating on the AP calculus exam. What struck him as unbelievable was not so much the report of cheating (later proven false) but that a school like Garfield-where the student body is 95 percent Latino, 85 percent poor, and mostly from families where their parents never graduated from high school-could produce even one student capable of passing the renownedly difficult test. Who was this man, Escalante, Matthews wanted to know, and how could he have accomplished so much with seemingly so little?
Matthews's search led him all the way back to Escalante's childhood in Bolivia. There he discovered an Horatio Alger story of sons in the teacher's own life. As a bright but mischievous child, Escalante had been forced to overcome an abusive, heavy-drinking father on the way to becoming a celebrated, top teacher at some of the best schools in Bolivia. But when he came to America, looking to broaden his professional and personal horizons, he mus told that his Bolivian degree was worthless. To support himself and his family, Escalante worked for 10 years as a janitor and then as a head cook at a Los Angeles restaurant while attending night school to re-earn his teaching degree. All the while, he never lost his gift for, nor his love of, teaching. But the sobering American experience reinforced in Escalante the unshakable determination and optimism that had made him, since childhood, always eager to take on a challenge. In fact, the bigger the challenge, the more it seemed to interest him.
One of Escalante's favorite challenges was shattering negative assumptions about the abilities of people from poor, ethnic backgrounds. As a little boy of eight, Jaime had bristled when his father whacked him across the face, after assuming he had stolen a pack of chewing gum that his friend had given him. As a new teacher at Garfield High, he was filled with the same anger when his colleagues assumed students at the academically shaky school couldn't possibly learn calculus.
Matthews tells how Escalante silenced the cynics with a compassionate and nonjudgmental voice, providing a rare, virtually unfiltered look at life in a world most non-minority Americans know very little about. The story was particularly interesting for me. As a former resident of a South Side Chicago housing project who attended a rough-and-tumble school with a reputation for the worst of everything-much like Garfield, though not Hispanic-I felt a great kinship with Escalante and his students. The "ganas," or desire to, learn, that Escalante instilled in his. students was given to me and myclassmates at Wendell Phillips High in Chicago by our own Escalante-a very special man named Leroy Lovelace. What Escalante did with logarithms, Lovelace did with language. Utilizing a no-nonsense teaching style, tempered by razoredged wit, showmanship, and seemingly Herculean classroom standards, both teachers imbued their students with a love of their respective subject, the confidence to belie the conventional wisdom that a ghetto or barrio background is a barrier to high academic achievement, and the vision to see beyond the probabilities to the possibilities of their lives. "You can do it!" was a favorite Escalante phrase no matter how impossible the assigned task seemed. For Lovelace, my freshman English teacher, it was "Let's see what kind of guts you got!"
What Escalante, Lovelace, and countless unsung classroom heroes across the country know is that if you expect nothing, you get nothing. There's nothing really miraculous about it. Dedication, determination, and hard work, lots of hard work, are the keys, and they are reserved not just for a select few.