Jaime Escalante would do just about anything for his former students--except skip class.
So when Armando Islas, 35, a former gang member from East Los Angeles and now a dental surgeon in Covina, invited his high school math teacher back to the Southland, Escalante accepted on the condition he could leave his Sacramento classroom after the final bell.
Escalante, 63, whose charismatic, controversial teaching style was captured in the 1988 movie "Stand and Deliver," spoke Friday at a Hispanic Heritage Month event organized by the Hispanic Employees Assn. at Litton Guidance and Control Systems in Woodland Hills.
During what was only his second return to the Southland since leaving Garfield High School in East L.A. in 1991, Escalante gave a motivational address to about 100 San Fernando High School students and Litton employees, peppering it with jokes and memories of his nearly 30 years of teaching.
"No one can decide what your destiny will be, only you," he said in a gravelly voice hardly louder than a whisper. "I came to this country without knowing one word of English and now I stand and deliver.
"You can do much more than that."
Escalante was born in La Paz, Bolivia, where he taught for about a decade before moving to Los Angeles in 1963. He worked in a restaurant and then an electronics plant before earning credentials to teach math at Garfield High School in 1974. In 1978, Escalante created the Advance Placement math course that earned him national notoriety.
Joseph Cabral, president of the newly formed, 40-member association, had invited Islas to speak at the event. Islas, who said Escalante had changed his life, asked his former teacher to join him.
"I was considering playing professional baseball," Islas said. "Jaime said to me, 'Why don't you go to school and be a professional your whole life?' "
The students, who showed up voluntarily to hear the legendary teacher on a Friday night, seemed to take Escalante's talk to heart.
"He's one of my main role models," said Arturo Cabrera, 17, a junior at the high school. "I live in Pacoima, which is a very low-income area, and most kids party all the time. But I want to be something."
Patty Luna, 17, a senior, said hearing Escalante speak bolstered her belief in her own abilities.
"He motivates Latinos, who are stereotyped as dropouts," Luna said. "It makes me realize that I don't have to listen to all the people who tell me I can't succeed."
Before the speech, Escalante offered his opinion on the debate over breaking up the Los Angeles Unified School District. He felt it was of little relevance.
"There is a lack of motivation in the administration," said Escalante, who left the area in the wake of a dispute with some other teachers at Garfield. "A breakup will not change that."
What is needed, he said, are more teachers who are committed to teaching.
"A teacher goes to teach in a high school and can't control the class, so he becomes a counselor," he said. "Then he becomes a vice principal and eventually a superintendent, when he was a weak teacher to begin with. Teaching is touching lives, not looking for a promotion."
For Escalante, teaching is a final destination.
"I'm gonna die like a good cowboy with his boots on," he said. "I'll be in the classroom with chalk in my hand."