Honoring a legendary teacher and his legacy


They came old and young, in Sunday best and football jerseys, some who knew Jaime Escalante, and others who knew only his legacy.

As in life, the famed math teacher, who died of bladder cancer March 30 at age 79, welcomed them all. Friday’s wake in a lecture hall at Garfield High School had an atmosphere that was part memorial, part church social: somber and festive at the same time, with mortuary workers and mariachis mingling on the school’s sunlit front lawn.

Students were let out of class early for the event. Scores stayed to see Escalante’s casket.

The line stretched halfway across the front of the red, white and blue high school made famous in the 1988 movie “Stand and Deliver.” Teenagers and former students with their own children in tow waited alongside retired teachers, swapping memories.

“He was always pressed, always in long-sleeved shirts, very formal,” recalled Angela Fajardo, a former student. Fajardo, 37, now teaches herself.

“I had him for three years and I can truly say he molded me,” she said.

In death, Escalante has again received national attention. He became known after his teaching methods propelled a group of Garfield students to surprise success on the 1982 Advanced Placement calculus test. Their performance prompted accusations of cheating, silenced after most of the students passed the test a second time.

Friday’s wake was organized in part by Edward James Olmos, who played Escalante in the film, and, pro bono, by Montebello’s Risher Mortuary.

Olmos said that hours before he died, Escalante told him he regretted leaving Garfield in 1991, and Olmos felt the school was the place for the wake. “This was his base, the best part of his life,” said Olmos, who stood outside, agreeing to autographs or cellphone photos from whoever asked.

Guests who made it through Friday’s line into the lecture hall found Escalante’s shiny black casket in the teacher’s place at the front of the room, overflowing with red roses and white lilies. Photos of the teacher in his trademark newsboy cap -- which he is to be buried in -- were posted around the room, alongside banners touting the ease of calculus. A blackboard was covered with equations.

Near the casket sat Raul Escalante, the teacher’s brother, and sisters Olimpia and Berta, who had flown in from La Paz, Bolivia, the previous night.

Raul Escalante, an accountant, remembered his brother’s childhood curiosity and intellect -- how he puzzled over devices such as radios, determined to understand their workings.

He was inspired to teach math by his mother, who was also a math teacher. “He taught with the same style as my mother,” Raul said. “Charismatic. Organized.”

To Ali Gardea, 45, an affirmative-action consultant, Escalante was the uncompromising teacher who made sure his students shared his priorities. “He would get so angry when we were in the marching band and something would take us away from class,” she recalled, laughing. “He would say, ‘How are you going to support your family on marching band!’ ”

In fact, Gardea stuck with band -- all the way through college at the University of California. Now, she said, she appreciates how Escalante used his fame not for his own advancement, but to obtain more resources for students.

Alejandra Herrera, 15, had no memories of the teacher to draw on as she waited. “I wanted to come and show respect,” the Garfield sophomore said. “I’m not sure where Garfield would be without him, and I’ve seen his movie so many times.”

Math, she added, “is my favorite subject.”

Escalante’s casket will leave Garfield in a procession up South Atlantic Boulevard at 9 a.m. Saturday before an 11 a.m. service in Weingart Stadium at East Los Angeles College.