Lessons for a lifetime
Anyone who has seen the film “Stand and Deliver,” the story of East Los Angeles math teacher Jaime Escalante -- who died Tuesday of cancer at age 79 -- will remember the character Ana Delgado. She was the Escalante student whose father made her work at his restaurant. In the movie, the teacher goes there one night and persuades the father to put a desk in the back so she can do her homework.
The film started a movement to open Advanced Placement courses to all students and sparked national discussions, still going on, about what makes a good teacher.
Essential to that debate is the rest of the Ana Delgado story. She was the only teenage character in the film based on a real person, a thin, quiet, quick-tempered girl named Leticia Rodriguez. Rodriguez’s experiences at Garfield High School, and the remarkable changes she underwent as an adult, shed new light on just how successful Escalante and his colleagues really were.
Rodriguez made the top score, a 5, on both the first AP calculus exam in 1982, when she and 13 other Garfield students were accused of cheating, and on the second, heavily proctored exam, when all 12 students who agreed to a retest passed again. She was among the least likely in that group to have done so well.
She was the second of seven children of a couple who came to the U.S. from Mexico to work as cooks. Rodriguez did not learn English until the second grade. She was smart, but like many East L.A. girls got little encouragement. She could not persuade her counselors to put her on the college track until the 11th grade.
A constant drag on her studies was her father’s demand that she work at least three school nights a week at the small family restaurant, El Farolito on Pico Boulevard west of downtown. Waitresses sometimes stole from petty cash. He needed someone at the cash register he could trust. When she tearfully told her trigonometry teacher, Ben Jimenez, that her parents wanted her to drop out, he enlisted Escalante to go with him to the restaurant.
The actual confrontation was as dramatic as the movie. “Women are just here to get married and have kids and that’s all,” her father told the teachers. “She has to work.” Escalante exploded, threatening to turn him in for violating child labor laws. The teachers left El Farolito defeated. Only the next morning did they learn from Rodriguez, flashing a rare smile, that her father had cut her work duties to two nights a week and promised to put a desk in the restaurant for her.
She still struggled in her senior year. Escalante thought she was not devoted enough to calculus. But she stuck it out, with intriguing results.
She was one of 10 former Garfield students who in 1987 signed forms allowing the College Board to show me their work on the first 1982 test. I found nine had made the exact same error in substitution. Two of them admitted there had been copying in a panicked moment as time ran out. The only one who took another approach to the question, and got the right answer, was Rodriguez.
Nonetheless, the delay in getting her score validated led to a bad start at Princeton for Rodriguez. She transferred to Cal State L.A. She dropped out when she got married and settled for a job as a state government secretary. “It was a very humbling position,” she said. “I was even called a bumbling idiot one day by the network administrator.”
That was the kind of life that Escalante had predicted for students who did not do their homework. But during her 10 years in that job, Rodriguez kept thinking she had done the work, in the most trying circumstances, and she had two top AP scores to prove it.
At Garfield, Escalante worked to erase his students’ fear of failure. He and Jimenez told them math was easy for anyone willing to work at it. They kept their classrooms open late, gave their students more time to learn and prepared them for the big goal -- the daunting test. Everyone worked together to succeed.
In the first go-round, I think the students’ fears did them in. Some of them weren’t sure they were good enough, and they tried to grab an advantage. When it came time for the retest in August, school was out. But in the one intense weekend Rodriguez and her classmates had to prepare, Escalante opened his classroom and the students prepped each other for the exam. That was part of what made their triumph over the cheating stigma so sweet.
How could Rodriguez forget it? The low expectations of others, even her father, could be ignored. Her own low expectations were another matter. Most of her Escalante classmates had gone to college and launched successful careers. Why couldn’t she?
Her father, ultimately proud of what I reported about her in my book on Escalante, offered to pay for her return to college. She got her bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering at Cal State L.A. in 2002 and her master’s from Cal Poly Pomona in 2007. She and her husband, an environmental consultant for the L.A. schools, have three children, the oldest at Cal Poly Pomona and the next oldest at Smith College.
Since 2007, Rodriguez has been a electronics design engineer for Xerox Corp. in El Segundo. “It is a wonderful place to work,” she told me, “always challenging.”
It was what Escalante and Jimenez wanted for her -- and finally what she realized she was good enough to get.
Jay Mathews, education columnist for the Washington Post, is the author of “Escalante: The Best Teacher in America.”