We Stood and Delivered, as TV Stared
`MATH is easy, it's in your blood! You can do it!'' Jaime Escalante declares, jokingly but with great conviction. So began our daily mathematical exercises. In our first year with him, as sophomores, there was an obscene amount of publicity. In the beginning we didn't quite understand why. But we soon found out. When I asked a friend who this ``Mr. Escalante'' was, she said, ``He is the teacher that is known for his unorthodox ways of teaching.''
When I ended up sitting front row center I knew what she meant. Soon our class song became ``We will, we will rock you,'' accompanied by insistent foot stomping, the wave, and his dancing. Along with this came our regular dose of ``dog house'' problems (synthetic division), and ``red light/green light'' problems (types of algebraic equations).
To show us the complex world of the parabola he would stand in front of the class raising the arms of a black gorilla doll and, voila, our lesson in parabolas.
But all was not stories and toys in our math class. Learning from Mr. Escalante had another component - the media.
Maybe they didn't realize what they were doing. They were intruders - it's just that simple. We liked the fact people finally were interested in what we could do, but a lot of the time the classroom didn't seem to be the right place, or time, to broadcast our achievements. Math is difficult enough. How could we be expected to work well if television cameras had become part of the decor - if millions were watching?
TV crews would walk in with looks of stupefied amazement. Always the burning question: ``Minority, inner-city students?'' Sometimes we felt like subjects in a experiment. Mr. Escalante stood on the sideline. He'd tell us, ``You are who they come to see, not me.''
But why? Because of the movie ``Stand and Deliver,'' of course - but it was released during our sophomore year. When we were juniors they were still there. Although now they paid more attention to the ``new ones,'' the incoming sophomores. Many of us were glad, others not so. Who doesn't like to be on television?
Calculus class was relatively large, about 30 kids. Impressive? Well, if you're a student at Garfield High School in East Los Angeles, it's the norm. When strangers discover we've been students of Jaime Escalante, they gape.
You think up standardized responses to the usual questions:
``Is he hard?'' (Is calculus difficult?)
``Did you really take his class?'' (No, I just said I did to boost my ego.)
``Did you take that test - the Advanced Placement Calculus test?'' (No, I like to suffer for nothing.)
People can go on like this indefinitely.
When it came time to sign up for AP Calculus BC (second year calculus), I returned to my senses and decided against it. But many of my close friends continued with Mr. Escalante. He is thoughtful and considerate, and can be very sweet with his students. He supports them by hiring some as tutors, for example, or helping them find summer jobs. This is the not-so-famous Escalante.
If you are an outsider to Garfield, Jaime Escalante and his students might seem to be something from another planet. But if you are part of the school, or the surrounding East Los Angeles community, you'd understand that he is a wonderful teacher and person - but he's not the only one.
When I think about high school, yes, math class will stand out. But I'll also remember the history teacher who had us ``become'' a historical figure. We had to try to look and sound like the real person. And English teachers who gave us control of discussions - we'd create the agenda. I'll also remember an economics teacher who administered a world trade conference where we represented different countries trying to get proposals adopted. I could give example after example.
Jaime Escalante represents a rare breed, but he is not the last of his kind. Garfield High School - and probably many other inner-city schools - has many who walk by his side or ahead. Still, I've no doubt they are an endangered species, and we must preserve them.