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Books: Jaime Escalante: Tapping the Urge To Succeed

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Like every successful preacher,coach, and chairman of the board--like any good motivator--Escalantenever settled on one method.

Working at Garfield High School in East Los Angeles with young people from predominantly poor, Hispanic families, the mathematics teacher Jaime Escalante has consistently produced large numbers of students earning high scores on the Advanced Placement calculus examinations.

In Escalante: The Best Teacher in America, Jay Mathews traces Mr. Escalante's career from his childhood and early teaching success in Bolivia through his immigration to America and his achievement in Los Angeles.

The author, who is the Los Angeles bureau chief of The Washington Post, depicts in the following passages Mr. Escalante's approach to classroom teaching and relationships with individual students.

Room 233 had become a showcase, a pedagogical Disneyland that delighted visiting principals. [Mr. Escalante's] huge color photographs of Wilt Chamberlain and Jerry West shared wall space with posters of the space shuttle and the white-wigged inventors of what was originally called the calculus.

Next to the clock, a principal focus of attention in any classroom, he placed the formula "Determination + Discipline + Hard Work = The Way To Success." Another poster over the blackboard extolled his watchword: ganas. The Spanish word loosely translates as "the urge"--the urge to succeed, to achieve, to grow.

The 42 students who made up his 1983 calculus class had been with him long enough to chant the relevant slogan in perfect unison--"Determination plus hard work plus concentration equals success, which equals ganas." Occasionally, from the back of the room, someone would softly add, "We've got the ganas but we don't have the money." ...

Like every successful preacher, coach, sales director, and chairman of the board--like any good motivator--Escalante never settled on one method. He improvised, using different devices with different students, but ... careful observers discerned a basic philosophical approach.

Social commentators and columnists sometimes speak of personal contact and warmth as characteristics of Latinos, as if no other ethnic community possesses such traits. In fact, Garfield students shared with all American teenagers the compulsive need to belong--thus the power of the gangs and the church and the extraordinary popularity of activities like the band and drill teams. ...

Escalante gradually came to appreciate the force of togetherness and the power of suggestion among his students. He moved slow learners to desks near his own. Gloria Bujanda, a quiet, thoughtful Escalante star who eventually turned down Harvard for Berkeley, watched him ingratiate himself with as many newcomers as possible.

Most received some kind of illustrative alias, since he still could not remember real names. There were usually one or two Elizabeth Taylors and, later, a few Madonnas. Bujanda herself had to put up with Gordita, "Little Fatty" in Spanish.

His students accepted their new names, no matter how embarrassing, as a sign that he recognized and cared about them, a crucial first step. His jokes and occasional digressions into Lakers [basketball] lore lightened the load of complicated mathematical reasoning and added to their sense of obligation.

Next came the inevitable guilt trip.

Escalante was their friend. So why were they not doing their homework? He could lay this on in several ways--a friendly word, a sudden coldness of intonation, an injured expression, or in some cases a request for the student's textbook, the equivalent of stripping a corrupt patrolman of his badge and gun. Some of his critics saw this as bald, insensitive coercion, but his students almost always felt his warmth and concern, and understood the message.

He joked constantly about the threat of an "F-U-U," the report-card triple whammy of a failing academic grade plus unsatisfactory marks in work habits and cooperation. His students laughed, but the humor also served as a reminder that their lovable bulldog had teeth.

Early in the term he called the parents of each of his newcomers--usually Algebra 2 students--and exchanged pleasantries. The students always heard about these calls. They were a tacit threat that he would call again if they caused trouble. In many cases, just the hint of plans to call someone's mother brought sudden reform.

He experimented with classroom routine. Sometimes he became so unpredictable that the most orderly of his students would request a transfer. ...

Escalante required students who botched homework assignments to do them again. He ordered 10 copies of some solutions. He put a concept on a quiz, went on to something else for a few days, then put the old concept on a quiz again to see if it had been retained.

Time was his tool, his melody. He welcomed--and sometimes ordered--students in for hours of after-school study to steal time from television and parental chores and talking on the telephone and band practice. He sang for time, scratchy and off key, "Yesterday, all my troubles seeeeeem so far way, ... but tomorrow, TUUUUUmorrow, I test you, tomorrow, it's only a day AAAAA-WAAAAY."

If, as Jimmy Breslin often said, political power is mostly mirrors and blue smoke, then Escalante was a politician. He strutted in front of the blackboard. He called himself "The Champ," a nickname he preferred to the milder "Kimo." ...

He sent errant students to a counselor friend who kept a phony list of names in his typewriter. Escalante said the man needed "just one more to fill up the next bus to Jordan High," seven miles, and a very long bus trip, from Garfield. Escalante left some doubts as to who actually ran the school, [the principal Henry] Gradillas or himself, and the principal went along.

"Sir! We have some students we have to send out of here."

"Of course, Mr. Escalante. Anything you say. We don't want people taking up space."

What worked best, in the minds of students who thought about it years later, was simply hard work. Escalante ... and the core of other Garfield teachers who began to push the Advanced Placement program spent so much time with students--early morning, nutrition break, lunch, after school until dark--that they could not be ignored.

Inside most American teenagers, including those at Garfield, lurks a visceral respect for honest labor. The feeling transcends class and ethnic background. They might give in to sloth and diversion themselves, but it was more difficult to do so when dealing with a teacher who worked as hard as Escalante did, no matter what they thought about his accent or wardrobe.

"I'm not going to class because I want to," a struggling calculus student, Delia Mora, announced to a group of friends in 1983. "But when you see all the effort he puts into the class, you begin to want to put out just as much."

Escalante telephoned a father whose son, an algebra student, had missed two homework assignments and penned a decorative bit of graffiti in his notebook.

"You have to help me solve this problem, sir," Escalante said in Spanish, assuming the grave persona his students called "The Priest."

"Look," the father said, "this is the way I solve the problem. I work nights and my wife works days."

"And who controls the kids?" Escalante asked.

"My kids have food and everything they need. I don't want anything from welfare. I take care of everything, and the boy knows that. Maybe he's just not right for your class, Mr. Escalante. He'll probably work in the body shop when he graduates. That's a good job. Or he can get work as a janitor."

Escalante felt the back of his neck get warm, but he kept his temper. "But, sir, I want him to be the boss of the janitors. He could do it."

The man laughed. "That's very nice of you, Mr. Escalante. But like I say, we're doing fine. I'll tell him to behave."

There was not much else Escalante could do. If they actually kept the boy out of school with chores and family employment, he could call upon his collection of bogeymen--the child-welfare people, the police, La Migra.

The most ignorant, those recently arrived from Mexico, sometimes believed he had the power and inclination to summon these demons. In fact, he could not even count on the support of the school system.

One afternoon he saw one of his target students, a bright boy teetering on the edge of failure, enter 233 without depositing the required homework in the basket. He would later recount this particular conversation many times, rendering the student's part in a surly, low-octave growl.

"Where is your homework?"

"I didn't do it."

"Why didn't you do it?"

"I had a bad dream."

This was a new one. Escalante recoiled, uncertain how to proceed against the forces of darkness. The excuse only demonstrated, to his mind, how intelligent the youth was. He reached for a dismissal slip.

"O.K., all right. This ticket is one way, one way. You got to talk to your counselor, or you bring in the homework. You want to drop the class, you bring in your mom, your dad. They sign the paper and you fly. Then you have to take three buses to get to the other school. Have to wake up about six o'clock. Less time for bad dreams. So you want the ticket? Or are you gonna bring the homework?"

The student studied the floor for a moment. "I'm gonna bring the homework."

Within hours the school psychologist was climbing the stairs to 233.

"Mr. Escalante," he said. "This boy has a real problem, and he is not always going to be able to do the assignment right away. I want you to keep that in mind. You just don't understand this kid."

Escalante had heard enough. He had seen too many teenagers equipped with excuses borrowed from adults. He assumed his most formal manner.

"I am sorry, sir. I don't believe in what you're saying or what you're doing. Please. If you want to take the kid, welcome. But I don't accept a kid who behaves like that in my class. Even if I believe a hundred and ten percent in what you're saying, I believe a hundred and twenty percent in what I'm doing."

The psychologist was a specialist in self-control and bristled only slightly. "I'm not going to accept this," he said. "I'm going to talk with the principal."

In this matter, Escalante thought he knew his "Big Brother," his nickname for Gradillas. They had discussed such excuses before. "If you send this kind of crap over here," Escalante had said, "excuse me for saying, but I'm going to have to ask for a transfer."

Gradillas listened to the psychologist's story and sighed. "Do what you can," he said, "but stay away from Escalante. He has his own school of psychology."


From Escalante: The Best Teacher in America by Jay Mathews. Copyright 1988 by Jay Mathews. With permission of the publisher, Henry Holt and Company, New York.

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