One of the most well-known teachers in twentieth-century American history, Jaime Escalante, passed away in 2010, but already his story is fading from our collective cultural memory. Recently I conducted an informal poll of the students, and even a few of the younger teachers, at my Southern California high school. “Do you know who Jaime Escalante is?” I questioned them. Almost every one said they didn’t, until I mentioned he was the teacher portrayed by Edward James Olmos in the 1988 movie Stand and Deliver.
The recipient of numerous awards and special praise from President Ronald Reagan, Jaime Escalante was a popular and talented teacher who challenged supposedly “unteachable” inner-city Latino students to achieve beyond a level anyone thought them capable of, eventually leading them to unparalleled success on the extremely difficult Advanced Placement Calculus exam.
In researching the life story of Escalante for my own book, Chalkboard Champions, I learned some surprising facts about this remarkable educator. For example, the movie never mentions that prior to immigrating to the United States, Escalante earned a degree in mathematics and a teaching credential in Bolivia. He was a veteran teacher with nine years of experience in prestigious Bolivian schools when he decided to leave his politically unstable homeland and come to America in search of a better life for his family. Once he arrived, unable to speak a word of English, he discovered that his education, training, and experience held no value here. Determined to return to the classroom, Escalante set about learning the English language and earning his university degree all over again. It took him ten years to get back into the classroom, at a significant cut in pay, by the way, but to this dedicated teacher, it was well-worth the hard work.
A painstakingly-researched and well-written account of Escalante’s life can be found in the biographical book Jaime Escalante: The Best Teacher in America by Jay Matthews. For a condensed version of Escalante’s life, check out chapter 12 my first book, Chalkboard Champions. Either way, you’ll find his story compelling and inspiring.