Arts & Entertainment

Jaime Escalante's Legacy: Teaching Hope

The math teacher who inspired the movie Stand and Deliver died Tuesday after a long battle with cancer. Jaime Escalante may not have become a household name after the film, but he possessed an enduring gift: He could inspire, cajole, even taunt troubled kids to see themselves not as they were, but as they could be.

For 20 years, Jaime Escalante taught calculus and advanced math at Garfield High School in one of East Los Angeles' most notorious barrios, a place where poor, hardened street kids were not supposed to master mathematics, and certainly not algebra, trigonometry, calculus.

But Escalante believed that a teacher should never, ever let a student give up.

"You have to love the subject you teach and you have to love the kids and make them see that they have a chance, opportunity in this country to become whatever they want to," he told NPR several years ago.

The Bolivian-born teacher, who inspired the 1988 movie Stand and Deliver, died Tuesday at 79 after a long battle with cancer. Escalante may not have become a household name after Hollywood captured his remarkable story, but he possessed an enduring gift: He could inspire, cajole, even taunt young, troubled kids to see themselves not as they were but as they could be.

To make it, Escalante often said, you need ganas, Spanish for desire and drive. Ganas was Escalante's battle cry, not just in motivating his students, but every time he chided apathetic administrators and jaded teachers. Stand and Deliver captures the tension perfectly in a scene when Escalante, played by Edward James Olmos, announces he wants to teach calculus and his colleagues think it's a joke.

Escalante would later say that Stand and Deliver was 90 percent truth, 10 percent drama. His biggest complaint was that the movie left the impression that his students, most of whom were struggling with multiplication tables, mastered calculus overnight.

Fact is, Escalante's kids ate, slept and lived mathematics. They arrived an hour before school and stayed two, three hours after school. Escalante drilled them on Saturdays and made summer school mandatory. Some parents hated it, and they let Escalante know it.

Escalante's remarkable success at Garfield High got lots of attention, not all of it good. In 1982, all 18 of his advanced math students passed the calculus AP (advanced placement) test, a college-level exam. The test maker accused the students of cheating, though, and Escalante accused the test maker of racism. The students retook the test and passed again with pretty high scores.

By 1991, 600 Garfield students were taking advanced placement exams, not just in math, but in other subjects, which was unheard of at the time. That year, though, Escalante resigned, in part because he was tired of the run-ins with fellow teachers who viewed him as a prima donna.

Years later, it pained Escalante to hear parents complain that Garfield's math curriculum had been dumbed down. Still, he had fond memories of Garfield High and said he wanted to be "remembered as a teacher, picturing that potential everywhere."

You can't be a good teacher unless you see the potential in every student, he said. He believed this to his core. That's what made Jaime Escalante such a great teacher. Copyright 2010 National Public Radio. To see more, visit