A few weeks ago, a hero died.
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.