For the first time in 35 years, a fall semester draws toward its close and famed teacher Jaime Escalante is not in his classroom.
Silenced are the talks about ganas or desire. Stopped are the Saturday study sessions. Curtailed are the funny and magical classroom morality plays that helped reveal a generation of math whizzes at Garfield High School in East Los Angeles.
But just months after retiring from his final post at a Sacramento high school, the venerated Escalante returned to the Eastside on Saturday, this time to help teach the teachers.
About 125 educators from around Los Angeles came to Eastmont Intermediate School in Montebello to hear the man celebrated in the film “Stand and Deliver” talk about how they can teach math by connecting with their students.
Joining the 67-year-old teacher were four students from his final class at Garfield, whose success stories brought some of the teachers in attendance close to tears.
“I am still trying to do what I can, raising money for scholarships and motivating teachers and people,” Escalante said. “That’s the only thing I have left to do. . . . What counts is to remain in the arena.”
Speaking from the lectern in the school auditorium, Escalante rumbled and whispered his way through a series of war stories and homilies.
His eyebrows dancing, he repeated favorite aphorisms, such as “Commitment is the price of success.” He told how he captured students’ imagination: by painting math formulas and derivatives on the walls in a sort of educational graffiti, by insisting that students “look at me when I look at you,” by telling students their IQs were so high that even they began bragging to the principal: “Hey, we are gifted!”
Those anecdotes left the teachers laughing and nodding in appreciation. But Escalante said the key to his success was that students and parents knew he cared. “A teacher must possess love for the students,” he said. “Love individually and love for the mass.”
He told of spending hours getting parents to commit to their children’s education--insisting that they go to school and finish their homework.
Denise Troncale, a mentor teacher and department chairwoman at Emerson Middle School in Pomona, said that message resonated most powerfully with her.
“He showed how important it is to make those phone calls and those home visits and to get that hook into parents,” Troncale said. “That is the thing he said [that] connected and really made a difference.”
The strong bond between Escalante and his last East Los Angeles students was still much in evidence Saturday. Before and after his talk they huddled close by him, put their arms around him and called him by his old nickname, “Kimo.”
Thomas Valdez, now an engineer at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, recalled that he was “practically hysterical with excitement” when he was assigned to Escalante’s algebra class at Garfield. That feeling seemed hardly to have waned a decade later.
“The greatest thing in my life was meeting Mr. Escalante,” Valdez said. “All the tools he gave us went way beyond the classroom. He taught me about life, how to make friends and what friends were. . . . I learned from him to have enthusiasm and to project that to other people.”
Jema Leyva, who now designs retail spaces for Merle Norman Cosmetics, said Escalante taught her how to think logically.
“He taught me to break down a problem and take it one step at a time,” Leyva said. “He gave me the tools to approach everything that came my way, from college on.”
Escalante’s protege at Garfield, Angelo Villavicencio, said he thought the master teacher “would have gone on until 90 if he could have.”
“In his heart he is still a teacher,” said Villavicencio, who now runs an acclaimed math program at Don Antonio Lugo High School in Chino.
But Escalante left Garfield in 1991 after his relationship with the school’s new principal soured. At Sacramento’s Hiram Johnson High School he never made the deep connections--with either students, parents or staff--that were the hallmarks of his success.
His direct appeal to Garfield parents, often in their native Spanish, was not always possible with most parents at the more ethnically diverse Sacramento school. Some of the parents and co-workers at Hiram Johnson have said they rejected his sometimes confrontational, aggressive tactics.
So when class opened this fall, Escalante decided to remain on the sidelines for the first time since he was a young man.
“It’s sad, it’s sad, it’s sad,” he said. “All the memories you have and then it’s the end of the line and you don’t have anymore.
“You have to adjust the way you are living. You miss the kids.”
But Escalante will not be idle. Saturday’s presentation was sponsored by Carl’s Jr. restaurants and the Foundation for Advancements in Science and Education, which presented all the teachers in attendance with the 24-part “Futures” educational video series. The classroom programs, featuring Escalante and a series of stars, show students the many career applications of mathematics.
Escalante said he plans to work evaluating test procedures for the Educational Testing Service--the company that once rejected the high scores of his Garfield students because it suspected the students had cheated. And he will deliver inspirational talks and seminars, beginning with a two-month tour of his native Bolivia at the end of this month.
He said the trip back to the Eastside inspired him.
“To be back here with these kids, to remember the good life back then, it is a real plus.”