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From his sickbed, Garfield High legend is still delivering

Jaime Escalante, 79, the math teacher who was the basis for the 1988 film 'Stand and Deliver,' is battling cancer. But he still has some lessons to impart.

March 07, 2010|By Esmeralda Bermudez
  • More than a dozen medications are the centerpiece of Jaime Escalante's dinner table in Reno. The charismatic former Garfield High School math teacher, 79, whom a colleague described as a "rocket" and who was the inspiration for the popular feature film "Stand and Deliver," is now frail, almost deaf and unable to speak above a whisper. He takes an array of supplements daily to battle cancer.
More than a dozen medications are the centerpiece of Jaime Escalante's… (Don Bartletti / Los Angeles…)

There was a time in East Los Angeles when el maestro's gruff voice bounced off his classroom walls. He roamed the aisles, he juggled oranges, he dressed in costumes, he punched the air; he called you names, he called your mom, he kicked you out, he lured you in; he danced, he boxed, he screamed, he whispered. He would do anything to get your attention.

"Ganas," he would say. "That's all you need. The desire to learn."

Nearly three decades later, Jaime Escalante finds himself far from Garfield High School in East Los Angeles, the place that made him internationally famous for turning a generation of low-income students into calculus whizzes. Twenty-two years have passed since his classroom exploits were captured in the film "Stand and Deliver."

He is 79 and hunched in a wheelchair at a cancer treatment center in Reno. It is cold outside, and the snow-capped mountains that crown the city where his son brought him three weeks ago on a bed in the back of an old van remind him of his native Bolivia.

He can't walk. He struggles to eat. Stomach acids have burned his vocal cords, reducing his voice to a whisper. The doctors who diagnosed his bladder cancer told him recently he has weeks -- at best a few months -- to live.

But don't let the frail man fool you. The teacher is not done teaching. Behind his large square glasses, that intense, mischievous look that once persuaded students to believe in themselves still lives in his eyes. He smiles at nurses, flashes a thumbs up.

When asked about his former students -- the engineers, lawyers, surgeons, administrators and teachers now spread across the country -- he wastes no time. He steals a nearby pen and slowly, in capital letters that have now grown faint, begins to write in Spanish:

THEY UNDERSTOOD THE SIGNIFICANCE OF GANAS, THE GIANT STEP TO SUCCESS. I HAD MANY OPPORTUNITIES IN THIS COUNTRY, BUT THE BEST I FOUND IN EAST L.A. I AM PROUDEST OF MY BRILLIANT STUDENTS.

Word spreads

When news of Escalante's condition broke last week, his former students rallied. Many had not spoken in years, but they tracked one another down and gathered Saturday at Garfield to raise money for their teacher. Actor Edward James Olmos, who became close to Escalante after playing him in the movie, persuaded Escalante's family to ask for help because the alternative care he is receiving in Reno is not covered by health insurance.

"All these years he's never been out of my mind," said Jema Estrella, a 37-year-old architect living in Los Angeles. "His presence was always felt."

In recent years, little had been heard from the immigrant teacher who once transformed a troubled high school into an institution with more Advanced Placement calculus students than all but three other public high schools in the country.

After his story was told on film, Escalante became legendary. He met Presidents Reagan and George H.W. Bush and welcomed celebrities to his classroom, along with curious educators from around the country. He was awarded money to grow his program, appointed to an education reform commission during the Bush administration and made the star of an educational television series. For a time, he even flirted with politics.

In 1991, after 17 years at Garfield, he left amid much discord to teach math in Sacramento. He blamed jealousy and politics for his departure. Fellow teachers resented Escalante's ego and the constant media attention they said pulled him from the classroom.

He retired to Bolivia, where until 2008 he was still teaching calculus.

Still a big name

When news vans pulled up to Garfield's front lawn last Monday morning, campus officials had no clue why they were there. Then the phones began ringing. Offers of donations poured in. Roses arrived at the front desk. Throughout the week, outsiders kept asking Assistant Principal Alfredo Montes questions. But he had few answers.

Escalante's name still means something nationally. His image is captured on murals in East Los Angeles and Westlake. But inside the old high school where he did his greatest work, there is hardly a trace of the former teacher. His name is rarely mentioned. There is no scholarship, no plaque, no poster. And though some of his former students are now teachers there, two of them math instructors, few were eager to talk about him.

What remains is his old classroom, MH-1. It is a portable room near the center of the campus, with stadium seating, ideal for his college-like classes. The building is nondescript except for a red, white and blue sign outside: "Jaime A. Escalante Math Center GANAS."

MH-1 will be demolished this summer to make way for an auditorium. Montes said the school plans to landscape the site and place a small plaque on it in Escalante's honor.

The school is one of the lowest-performing in the Los Angeles Unified School District.

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