Jaime Escalante – Passionate. Brilliant. Hero.

A few weeks ago, a hero died.

Jaime Escalante.

Jaime Escalante - December 31, 1930 - March 30, 2010

He was my hero. I first learned about him in college. I was finishing up my teaching degree and I had an amazing math professor. Her teaching style was energetic, positive and fun. She taught us about Jaime Escalante and the work he was doing at Garfield High School in California. When the movie about his work with students in L.A. “Stand and Deliver” was released, a bunch of us went to see it.

I was mesmerized.  His energy. His stamina. His drive. His passion.

He was an amazing teacher. He was the teacher I wanted to be.

I was never a strong math student. I struggled to understand and keep up. But in high school, with an amazing Algebra I teacher, something clicked. I was catching on. It wasn’t as hard as I’d thought. But I was a girl. And girls don’t do math. And boys don’t like smart girls. So I played dumb. I fostered the belief in myself that I still wasn’t very good with numbers. My path was English, not math.

During my senior year of high school, I had already received early acceptance to a major university. So, like any other senior in the same position, I slacked off. I coasted. I even dropped out of Trig because, hey – I was going to teach English. Who needs higher math?

When I took my university placement exams I had tested out of freshman mathematics. I shook my head in disbelief and asked them to check again, because I wasn’t very good at math. My advisor assured me that the scores were correct. Had I considered a career in mathematics?

I laughed. Of course not. But unable to stay away, I took a few math courses. And a few more. Pretty soon I was able to have a double major in both math and English. Might come in handy someday, I thought.

I always felt I was a better Math Teacher than English Teacher. English came too easily for me. How in the world do you teach someone how to write? How to analyze? How to interpret?

But with numbers? Easy. Step by step. There was a pattern to discover. A direct path leading to the correct answer.

And, I used to be a struggling math student. I knew, first hand, what it was like to sit in a classroom with numbers whizzing by and you have no idea how everyone else seems to know the answer. I knew how to struggle with a calculus problem that took pages to complete and three tries to get the right answer while your study partner got it right the first time and in 10 less steps.

Math didn’t come easily to me but boy, was it fun! Every day a new puzzle. A new riddle to solve.

Jaime Escalante showed a bunch of kids, a random sampling of American high school students, that they were capable of being great math students. Each year that he taught AP Calculus at Garfield High, more and more students were inspired and passed the exam.

Each and every year.

They weren’t geniuses. It wasn’t luck. It was all because of a man with tenacity, knowledge and a pure love of teaching and his students. The students were inspired by his energy and drive. They were pumped up by his confidence in their abilities. They began to believe in themselves. And then they just went out and did it!

In the years that followed Jaime Escalante’s departure from the Garfield High math program, passing AP Calculus scores plummeted by 80 percent. There was no longer a champion for the students, encouraging a love for math. Garfield High School students were again, just like any other math student across the country. Struggling to see the wonder in numbers. Becoming bored with applications that they’ll “never use.”

An amazing teacher died last month.

A passionate advocate. A brilliant role model.

A hero.

15 Comments

Filed under People, Teaching

15 responses to “Jaime Escalante – Passionate. Brilliant. Hero.

  1. Mel

    I hadn’t heard about his passing, thanks for the great post honoring an amazing teacher. You double majored in math and english? I’m impressed, both sides of your brain are working!

  2. My husband and I were just talking about him the other night. I hadn’t realized that he passed away. Thanks for letting all of us know.

    I’m hopeless with math except Geometry. All my guys on the other hand are great at Algebra, Tig, Calculus…

  3. I feel like I wrote this post!!! Amen to all of it.

  4. suzicate

    What a lovely tribute! Thanks for sharing.

  5. I was really saddened to hear of his death, also.

    Wonderful tribute!

  6. Ugh! I am terrible at math and unfortunately I don’t view the challenge as a cool puzzle like you do. I think it is interesting that you ended up teaching Math vs. English. I cannot imagine teaching something that didn’t some easily to me. Good for you!

    • Actually, I ended up teaching both math AND English. I just felt more confident in my math teaching skills. I remember one moment when I was filling in for a English teacher’s 6th grade class and the students asked me how you knew where to put the apostrophe in a contraction. I stood there, dumb. I had no clue. You just knew where it went, right? ‘Cause that’s where it belonged. I had to come back to them the next day with the answer after looking it up. Teaching about a topic sentence, conclusion, where to put an apostrophe – I had no idea that these skills had to be learned. But math? Not one of MY innate skills. And for that, I was the better teacher.

  7. unabridgedgirl

    I wish I had you or your hero for a math teacher growing up. LoL Maybe I’d have a different attitude about numbers.

  8. Hear, hear! Like you, I struggled as a young math student. But my best teacher through junior high and high school (because I went to a school so small that I had teachers for six years straight!) was a math teacher, passionate about numbers and intent on comprehension. He didn’t quite inspire me to major in math, but I remain inspired by his teaching and by the self-confidence I gained in learning to feel more comfortable with math.

  9. Teachers like Escalante inspire so many kids to really rise to the challenge. He was born to teach.
    Seems that you are born to teach too. Great tribute.

  10. I loved this post, Jane. Truly, English does come easily to you – or at least you write it damn well! I haven’t heard of this man, but I’ll definitely look up that film about him, now that you’ve got me fascinated.

    I became good at math on my own, but then, when I joined an accelerated university math class in which I finished high-school math in tenth grade instead of twelfth, I found what it was like to have a good math teacher. He was just a student himself, getting his MA in mathematics at the time, but he was a tough teacher who also managed to inspire us. If we had a problem with understanding something, he’d go through the theory with us, step by step, ensuring that we understood it. Although I’m also an Englishy person like you, I still to this day love that satisfying thing that goes CLICK in your head when you realize what the next step to solving a math problem is.

  11. Nicki

    I did not realize he had died. This is a wonderful tribute to him and to teachers who inspire everywhere.

  12. He sounds amazing. I never met a math teacher who could actually teach me math. Although that’s probably more my fault than theirs.

  13. ck

    Wow. I’m so out of the loop I didn’t know who he was. (The shame, I know.) Thank you for introducing me to him, even though he’s already gone.

  14. Hi Jane:
    I am working on a program inspired by Professor Escalante. While I never met him, his work has influenced and inspired my life in many ways. Now a doctor of education, it is time to help children through his work.
    Would you be kind enough to email me your last name? I want to cite your blog as reference material in research I am conducting. Citations typically appear as Last, F. M. (year). Title. Publication.
    Thanks.
    Dr. Eduardo J. Calle
    Associate Professor Senior
    Miami Dade College

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