Saturday, March 27, 2010

Ganas - Chicano national treasure hit by cancer

In 1982 a Bolivian immigrant named Jaime Escalante made national news because 18 of his high school students passed the Advanced Placement exam in calculus. Actually, the sensational news was that they were all inner-city L.A. Chicano kids. The corporate testers, Educational Testing Service, threw out their scores, since it's common knowledge, even to this day, that poor brown kids can't do, or in this case, outdo what preppy, rich Anglo kids do, at least academically.

If you never heard about this, then you've never seen the film Stand and Deliver, starring Ed Olmos as Escalante. You can remedy this gap in your education by at least watching the movie, directed by Ramón Menéndez. Briefly though, here's what rolls past before the credits at the end:
  • Twelve of those students that year retook the exam and their original scores were reinstated.
  • In 1983, 30 students passed the Advanced Placement test.
  • In 1987: 73 passed.
To learn more about Escalante's work, his students and their accomplishments, there's books on the subject. I found the Mathews' book much more informative:

Escalante: The Best Teacher in America by Jay Mathews (Owl Book - 1989)
Jaime Escalante: Sensational Teacher by Ann Byers (Library Binding - 1996)

Of course, every teacher should know about Escalante, and especially about ganas, which is so often heard in the movie. Ganas de aprender translates as being willing to learn, have the yearning to succeed. What's obvious in the film though is more; it's the eagerness, the thirst, the passion for knowledge, and that must have been more like what happened in Esclante's classroom.

Those of us lucky enough to teach primary grades witness this each day in our classes. It's a marvel, a challenging one because no matter how good a teacher you are, you can't feed those with ganas enough to satisfy their eagerness, fast enough to slake their thirst, nor deep enough to meet their passion. It comes pre-packaged within children's genes, unless society removes it from them.

That American media is filled with non-ganas examples--every day broadcasting how society fails its children--is tragic, at the least. Standardized testing, closing neighborhood schools, replacing them with charter schools and blaming society's failures on the few bad teachers is what many Americans believe will cure our educational ills.

Jaime Escalante wasn't about any of these things when he soared. He taught knowledge, high expectations and
ganas. That's all he and his students needed. Their results attest to how well that has and could work.

In history's record of him, you'll find anecdotal info that he could be an asshole, stubborn, egotistical, gruff and myopic. Allegedly, he discouraged his kids from other school activities--cultural, extracurricular--because that would have interfered with the calculus goals. That would seem to be more society's fault than simply Escalante's weaknesses. It was the price--and is still one teachers are forced to accede to--in order to succeed.

I call Escalante a Chicano, not a Latino, because his works determined that. He attained his level of success by becoming one of us.

I call Escalante a national treasure because like all treasures he has already entered the realm of the legendary, as unbelievable as his accomplishments were.

He's now 79, battling cancer and his family is battles the fact that despite healthcare "reform" passed this week, the onerous medical bills surrounding his illness are typical of how well American society cares for its true heroes.

Edward James Olmos devotes a wonderfully informative section of his
website to Escalante, the movie, etc., if you have the ganas to learn more or contribute to his medical battle.

Even if you don't or can't, think at least about carrying on a piece of his teachings. Whether you're a teacher, parent, brother, aunt, neighbor or family friend, somewhere in your world is a child that could have done well in Escalante's class. He or she might have the ganas or might need to be encouraged to re-find the ganas within themselves.

We can't all be Escalantes, but there's no harm in adopting a little of his legacy for ourselves.

Es todo, hoy,


Unknown said...

Most interesting--thanks for sharing.

msedano said...

best wishes to jaime escalante in his wellness. for his wellness.

Chanda @ Disordered Cosmos said...

I'm from East LA, took my SATs at Garfield, and in a few months I'll be finishing a PhD in Theoretical Physics. My earliest memory of hearing the word calculus was via "Stand and Deliver," and that story has been a reminder in many tough moments that barriers were meant to be broken. The mark of this man on students like me has been immeasurable.

Thank you, Jaime Escalante. Many of us are wishing you and your family the best.

Juegos de Ben 10 said...

To all of the best wishes to jaime.