From his sickbed, Garfield High legend is still delivering
There was a time in East Los Angeles when el maestro’s gruff voice bounced off his classroom walls. He roamed the aisles, he juggled oranges, he dressed in costumes, he punched the air; he called you names, he called your mom, he kicked you out, he lured you in; he danced, he boxed, he screamed, he whispered. He would do anything to get your attention.
“Ganas,” he would say. “That’s all you need. The desire to learn.”
Nearly three decades later, Jaime Escalante finds himself far from Garfield High School in East Los Angeles, the place that made him internationally famous for turning a generation of low-income students into calculus whizzes. Twenty-two years have passed since his classroom exploits were captured in the film “Stand and Deliver.”
He is 79 and hunched in a wheelchair at a cancer treatment center in Reno. It is cold outside, and the snow-capped mountains that crown the city where his son brought him three weeks ago on a bed in the back of an old van remind him of his native Bolivia.
He can’t walk. He struggles to eat. Stomach acids have burned his vocal cords, reducing his voice to a whisper. The doctors who diagnosed his bladder cancer told him recently he has weeks -- at best a few months -- to live.
But don’t let the frail man fool you. The teacher is not done teaching. Behind his large square glasses, that intense, mischievous look that once persuaded students to believe in themselves still lives in his eyes. He smiles at nurses, flashes a thumbs up.
When asked about his former students -- the engineers, lawyers, surgeons, administrators and teachers now spread across the country -- he wastes no time. He steals a nearby pen and slowly, in capital letters that have now grown faint, begins to write in Spanish:
THEY UNDERSTOOD THE SIGNIFICANCE OF GANAS, THE GIANT STEP TO SUCCESS. I HAD MANY OPPORTUNITIES IN THIS COUNTRY, BUT THE BEST I FOUND IN EAST L.A. I AM PROUDEST OF MY BRILLIANT STUDENTS.
When news of Escalante’s condition broke last week, his former students rallied. Many had not spoken in years, but they tracked one another down and gathered Saturday at Garfield to raise money for their teacher. Actor Edward James Olmos, who became close to Escalante after playing him in the movie, persuaded Escalante’s family to ask for help because the alternative care he is receiving in Reno is not covered by health insurance.
“All these years he’s never been out of my mind,” said Jema Estrella, a 37-year-old architect living in Los Angeles. “His presence was always felt.”
In recent years, little had been heard from the immigrant teacher who once transformed a troubled high school into an institution with more Advanced Placement calculus students than all but three other public high schools in the country.
After his story was told on film, Escalante became legendary. He met Presidents Reagan and George H.W. Bush and welcomed celebrities to his classroom, along with curious educators from around the country. He was awarded money to grow his program, appointed to an education reform commission during the Bush administration and made the star of an educational television series. For a time, he even flirted with politics.
In 1991, after 17 years at Garfield, he left amid much discord to teach math in Sacramento. He blamed jealousy and politics for his departure. Fellow teachers resented Escalante’s ego and the constant media attention they said pulled him from the classroom.
He retired to Bolivia, where until 2008 he was still teaching calculus.
Still a big name
When news vans pulled up to Garfield’s front lawn last Monday morning, campus officials had no clue why they were there. Then the phones began ringing. Offers of donations poured in. Roses arrived at the front desk. Throughout the week, outsiders kept asking Assistant Principal Alfredo Montes questions. But he had few answers.
Escalante’s name still means something nationally. His image is captured on murals in East Los Angeles and Westlake. But inside the old high school where he did his greatest work, there is hardly a trace of the former teacher. His name is rarely mentioned. There is no scholarship, no plaque, no poster. And though some of his former students are now teachers there, two of them math instructors, few were eager to talk about him.
What remains is his old classroom, MH-1. It is a portable room near the center of the campus, with stadium seating, ideal for his college-like classes. The building is nondescript except for a red, white and blue sign outside: “Jaime A. Escalante Math Center GANAS.”
MH-1 will be demolished this summer to make way for an auditorium. Montes said the school plans to landscape the site and place a small plaque on it in Escalante’s honor.
The school is one of the lowest-performing in the Los Angeles Unified School District.
“Outsiders hear the story and they think we live it here every day, but that’s not the case,” Montes said. “This is the place he taught, where kids succeeded against all odds, but it’s not something you can use as a battle cry all the time. You would go nuts.”
In Reno, Escalante’s schedule is dictated not by school bells but by about two dozen medications -- pills, liquids, teas and ointments that must be swallowed, sipped and applied every few hours to soothe his many aches. In a few days, he will finish his three-week treatment and return with his son to Northern California. His wife, Fabiola, is expected to fly in from Bolivia.
His time here has been quiet, except on days when a few relatives and old friends like Olmos have flown in to visit. On Friday, Escalante’s longtime friend and former Garfield colleague Angelo Villavicencio stood by his side.
“Defense, defense!” Villavicencio, 59, challenged Escalante as he struggled to swallow a blue-green liquid. With those same words, the teacher used to pump up students before their big math exams.
The two reminisced about the Garfield days, when the maestro and his protege taught side by side. Villavicencio said Escalante often told him that leaving the school was one of the biggest mistakes of his life.
“Those years at Garfield, we were in a great daze,” Villavicencio said. “We were high because of the atmosphere that he created for us.”
Escalante sat quietly listening, the hands that once ground chalk into the blackboard resting on his rail-thin legs. Every now and then he pushed himself, between dry coughs and wheezes, to talk -- not of his pain or his fate but of his favorite aphorisms.
“Determination. Plus discipline. Plus hard work. That is the path.”
“I can do it. I’m be best. I’m gonna prove it.”
“No student is smarter than my student.”
“Believe, believe. Believe in your kids. They will surprise you.”
The motivational posters and banners that once plastered his classroom walls are gone. So are his many scrapbooks and his props -- stuffed animals, cleavers and hats. Few people still call him Kemo or Kemo Sabe, as students once nicknamed him, after the Lone Ranger. But the students’ names live on vividly in his mind: Sergio Valdez, Thomas Valdez, Ana Macias, Elsa Bolado, Roy Marquez, Aili Gardea, Jema Leyva.
“My kids,” he calls them.
It’s not so much that they use calculus. Some haven’t since they left his class decades ago. But many of Escalante’s former students say much of what he taught them serves them well day after day. In their minds, they still hear Kemo push them to think methodically, to work hard, to be bold, to never offer excuses.
At Garfield, Escalante called Jeannie Moreno “La Lopez,” her maiden surname. Later, when she found herself alone in Washington state attending law school, she thought of her teacher.
“I could still feel that confidence, that foundation he built in me, and when I needed it I was able to pull from it,” said the family attorney, who now lives in Monterey Park.
Sergio Valdez, a mechanical engineer, said Escalante once pushed him to drop his liquor-store job for a gig as a math tutor. Now he works at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. He carries with him the belief that he can accomplish anything.
“Everything I’ve done, I owe to him,” Valdez said.
Escalante used to tease Jema Estrella for leaving class early to play basketball. Now, when the architect, who works for Los Angeles County, feels pulled in too many directions, she says, “I keep thinking of what he told us: ‘Don’t be intimidated. Understand where you want to go with the problem. Break it down.’ ”
Their experience with Escalante opened doors to universities and scholarships and jobs. They still wear their time with him like a badge of honor. In public speeches, they mention his name. They repeat his advice to their children.
And now that Escalante is nearing the end of his journey, they think of what they will one day leave behind.
“I’m hopeful that I can have at least a 100th of the influence he had,” said Angel Navarro, a defense attorney who landed in Escalante’s calculus class 28 years ago. “His legacy lives through me and many, many others.”