from PCC Spotlight
by Alfredo Santana
When lifetime dreams are the subject, nobody loves to discuss them better than the inspiring math teacher Jaime Escalante
Based upon his life story, this Bolivian-born man declares, without hesitation, that all a person needs to succeed is to have el deseo de triunfar -the desire to triumph.
HE BRAND-NEW 1964 Volkswagen beetle veered through the streets of Pasadena from a modest El Molino Avenue apartment to Van de Kamp's restaurant five days a week. For the driver, a recently arrived Bolivian math teacher, the environment at his job, where he was the only non-speaking English worker, represented a new challenge in his life. But he confronted it. He was full of ganas de triunfar -desire to succeed. He was anxious to interact with different people. He was willing to learn and explore new adventures. He was determined to make things happen.
Meet Jaime Escalante, a world-reknown mathematics, physics and computer teacher.
Among all the awards he has garnered during his outstanding career, he prizes one above all others: his associate in arts degree in engineering from Pasadena City College (PCC).
Although he possessed both the knowledge and the experience to teach math when he arrived in this country, he first had to clear a big barrier on his path to success in the United States: English.
"I HAD TO LEARN the language to communicate, and I knew that the only way to do it was by going to college," recalled Escalante who teaches at the Hiram Johnson High School in Sacramento. "But I have always been a person with a lot of ganas. I have always liked to succeed."
At that time, however, Escalante, a graduate of La Escuela Superior de La Paz, had to face another more pressing problem, He neede d to earn a decent living for his wife Fabiola and their 8-yearold son Jaimito.
Escalante needed a job urgently because even though he and his family lived in a small single room owned by Fabiola's brother, he soon realized that the cost of living in America was much more expensive than in Bolivia.
So Escalante, then 33, landed a job at the now defunct Van de Kamp's restaurant across from PCC.
There he found a stiff, sour-tempered manager, who needed someone to clean-up. He gave Escalante a mop and ordered him to clean the dirty white linoleum.
Escalante mopped, swept and scrubbed.
At closing time, Escalante stacked the chairs on the tables and gave everything one last mopping.
Although he didn't dislike the job, it wasn't quite what he had in mind for himself. He wanted to be able to perform his life long dream: teaching.
So, days after he became a busboy, Escalante and his brother-in-law decided to attend PCC, a college known for offering the tools of success to new immigrants .
If he was to do what he knew best, Escalante had to make big sacrifices.
"I BEGAN GOING to college in the evenings after I finished work," Escalante said. "I finished tired, but I knew that that was the right thing to do."
Right from his first day, Escalante got off to a good college start. He took the respective placement tests, and began his academic journey. Escalante finished the two-hour math placement test, which included calculus and trigonometry, in 30 minutes.
He got 100 percent.
The real test, however, came about two weeks later, when he began a semester with a load of 12 units. As he describes it, that was "one of the most difficult semesters in my life."
In the fall of 1964, Escalante pushed himself to take English, math and electronics. With both a full-time job and a full load of classes, things began to get a bit hectic. "After the classes were over, I always stayed either in the library or in the classroom until security asked me to leave," Escalante said. "That was the only time I had for homework."
Meanwhile, the environment at home was not at all rosy. Fabiola frequently complained about her husband's restaurant job. It wasn't the wages that bothered her so much. Escalante was actually making more than his $100-a-week teacher's salary back in La Paz, but she disliked the taint of a blue-collar job for a man with a degree and a professional reputation. Several times she asked him to quit his job to look for a more suitable one in a technological field.
Escalante knew, however, that to reach his ultimate goal of teaching in this country, he needed to spend more time at school, despite his wife's comments.
"THIS IS ALL TEMPORARY," he told Fabiola. "I am learning Einglish. The courses at PCC are helping me to learn the language. Now I can write to the state and send them my credentials and awards." The desire to expand his expertise in the field of math and the need to assimilate the language made Escalante continue with the evening class schedule for four years. In 1967, after having taken more than 140 units, most of them in English, math and electronics, Escalante graduated from PCC.
Once he picked up the language, Escalante had very few problems in his classes. He credits his success in the field of numbers to his relentless passion that began when he was in primary school. But above all, it was his will to excel in a country where Latino math instructors were a rarity.
The immigrant professor who didn't know how to speak English, has come a long way. Immediately after PCC, Burroughs Corp., a plant located in the northeast part of Pasadena, offered him a job as an assembly line supervisor.
He worked his way up, and in 1972, thanks to his ability to solve production and electrical problems, he was offered a supervisor's job in a new plant in Guadalajara, Mexico.
However, Escalante declined the offer. He had his goal set. He wanted to teach. So, he furthered his education at Cal State Los Angeles, and in 1974, he graduated with a bachelor's degree in math and electronics.
The man, who by this time had adopted American citizenship, received a number of offers from Los Angeles Unified School District officials. They asked him to pick from three senior high schools in different areas of the city: Roosevelt, Belvedere or Garfield. All had a large Latino student population.
He visited Garfield in the spring of 1974, and almost immediately was hired as a computer teacher. This was the position for which Escalante had yearned.
His success at Garfield attracted media attention when his Latino students garnered the highest grades in the city in algebra and calculus. Stories of his students' successes filled the pages of the Los Angeles Times, Newsweek, Time and other nationwide publications.
Most Americans learned that low-income students had achieved math grades that were only seen in schools in high-income areas of the city. The magnitude of his achievement was so great that even Hollywood decided to film the movie of his life: Stand and Deliver.
The teacher with wide-rimmed lenses who had left his country, his customs and his profession in search of the American Dream, dared to do what he knew best. However, he acknowledges that the foundation for his success was laid at PCC.
Alfredo Santana is a writer for L.A.'s Spanish magazine Impacto Latino and was Editor in Chief of the Courier in the fall of 1993.
In a talk called "Stand and Deliver", CSPAN 1997
On Educating Children
Tell your child you love them
Touch your child to reinforce love
Time. Spend quality time.
On Deciplining Children
Control your anger
Appropriate level of action
Teach These Goals
Anticipation (right time and place)
"The day someone quits school he is condemning himself to a future of poverty"
"Determination + Discipline + Hard Work = Way to Success"
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