SACRAMENTO–Jaime Escalante–California’s most famous high school math teacher, and probably the planet’s–has plenty of what he preaches: Ganas. Desire.
Desire to challenge students so they’ll achieve beyond anyone’s dreams. Desire to challenge mediocrity in schools even if it ruffles fellow teachers. A desire now to challenge–and drastically change–California’s system of bilingual education.
He pounds both fists on his chest over his heart as he says it: “Ganas.”
There’s a wide banner across the left side of the front wall in his classroom here, declaring in bright red letters: “Ganas–That’s All You Need.” At the wall’s middle is a big sign: “The Time to Study for Final Exams is Now.” Across the right side is the most eye-catching banner: “Stand and Deliver.”
Escalante’s life changed significantly after Hollywood made the movie about him. The 1988 hit “Stand and Deliver,” starring Edward James Olmos, depicted Escalante’s extraordinary feats as a calculus teacher at East L.A.’s Garfield High. He became famous and his colleagues, he says, became envious.
“What the movie did, it created a lot of enemies for me,” he says. “Some of the math teachers didn’t like what I was doing. Some said, ‘He’s a comedian.’ The kids used to talk about me, ‘We have a great teacher.’ That created jealousy in some teachers. They said, ‘We don’t need this guy.’ “
Finally, he got sick of the faculty fights. “I said, ‘Have a nice day, sir,’ ” he recalls. “I’d done my homework. I called [Sacramento].”
* * *
Escalante, now 66, has been teaching math since 1991 at Hiram Johnson High, a multiracial school in a working-class neighborhood. He still wears his trademark touring cap. He entertains to capture students’ attention. He tutors after school and on Saturdays. He rewards good students with cookies or NBA tickets.
“I work with those who are not motivated,” he says. “Troublemakers.”
He’s a troublemaker himself, of sorts; a malcontent in a positive way. But in Sacramento–at least until recently–he has ducked publicity and controversy. “I have experience,” he notes. “I don’t really get involved because [if I do] I know I’m going to get kicked out again. Here I’m fine.”
But the ganas–the desire to change–cannot permanently be repressed. Recently, Escalante accepted wealthy computer whiz Ron Unz’s entreaty to become honorary chairman of his anti-bilingual ed initiative.
Today, Unz will turn in the signatures to qualify his proposal for the June ballot. The measure would require students to be taught in English. Kids who needed it would be placed in “English immersion” classes for one year. Now, they can stay in bilingual classes for up to six years, being taught primarily in their native language.
This is the first political adventure for the apolitical Escalante, a native of Bolivia who migrated to L.A. at age 33. To learn English, he says, “I watched TV and concentrated on the news. Those guys speak good English.”
He believes the most important thing a child can learn is English. “Kids learn by doing,” he adds.
“It’s good to have bilingual teachers who speak two languages. But if you teach the kids in Spanish, you’re not preparing them for life. In this country, we negotiate in one language and you have to master that language to be successful. And it’s English. . . .
“The tendency of the kid is to go to the mother language. I say, ‘Only English, man. Outside [class] you can ask me any question in your language. Inside, you learn my language. In here, we’re going to have to prepare to beat the Japanese.’ “
* * *
Escalante can rattle off many anti-bilingual ed tales. Two involve his sons. The oldest came to America at age 7, speaking no English. For him, English was sink or swim, and he became fluent within three years without bilingual ed. Today, he’s an electronics engineer.
His youngest son was born in L.A. and entered school speaking English. “They looked at the name–Escalante–and said this kid should be in a bilingual program,” the father remembers.
“My wife went to school and asked why. They said, ‘To keep the culture.’ She said, ‘No, sir. The culture we teach at home. This kid is going to get an education at school.’ We got him into a regular class.” Today, that son is a civil engineer and bilingual.
Escalante says it doesn’t bother him that the initiative may attract some bigoted voters. “That’s their problem. . . . We have racists [in society], we do. But if you’re going to live with [being angry at] that, you fall in the same hole.”
Bilingual ed supporters may disagree with Escalante. But he’s one initiative sponsor they can’t honestly accuse of being motivated by political opportunism or bigotry. He’s motivated by ganas.