The book traces Escalante’s training as an engineer in his native country, his gradual path toward becoming a high school teacher at East Los Angeles’ Garfield High School, where he fought for, introduced, and led students to excellent scores in, the Advanced Placement Calculus class.
He is a colorful character. Mathews writes about Escalante’s ongoing battles with other educators, the nearly unconditional support he received from Principal Henry Gradillas, and his constant efforts to convince students they had the brains to achieve at the same level as their wealthier and whiter counterparts.
Linda Asato, a former student of Escalante’s, said he would often spend up to half the class giving the students a pep talk.
Mathews also explains how Escalante accumulated a wealth of teaching materials and equipment by swooping in whenever a colleague was leaving.
The book also explores the controversial interaction with the Educational Testing Service, which questioned the students’ stellar results on the test. The movie portrays the issue as one of racism, and the book gives it more texture. Mathews does note that Escalante had a specific teaching method which increased the chances that students would make the same type of mistake, and he includes statements from several of the students that they did cheat-statements the students later retract.
Mathews also makes the points both that the quality of the classes became harder to maintain as the number of students taking the test expanded and the students studied less vigorously, and that teachers in other departments also started teaching Advanced Placement classes at which Garfield students succeeded.
This challenging of disbelief and shattering of barriers may be one of Escalante’s most enduring legacies.
I learned the news from one of Escalante’s former students, Yamil, who commented on this blog and says we should honor this great teacher.
I couldn’t agree more.