Chapter 2 of It Takes Ganas: Jaime Escalante’s Secret to Inspired Learning
Jamie Escalante did not look like anybody’s idea of a celebrity.
Because he could never remember his students’ real names, he made up nicknames for them. One of his favorites, Corcho, would have been a good fit for Jaime himself. He was built like a corcho – cork. Solid and chunky with big hands, a burly neck, and short legs. One observer said he looked like the school mascot: a bulldog. His dark features were framed by oversized glasses that emphasized the roundness of his face. A scraggly comb-over was often hidden under his trademark newsboy cap. His daily wardrobe tended towards chinos, plaid shirts, and shapeless pullover sweaters. His thick accent persisted decades after leaving his native Bolivia for the barrios of East Los Angeles.
Certainly the first forty years of Jaime Escalante’s life gave no clue he would ever be the subject of feature articles in The New York Times or an Oscar-nominated Hollywood film. Or that his legacy as a teacher would drive discussion and debate about education in America down to the present day.
When people met Escalante, their first hint of something extraordinary was his eyes. They darted and sparkled like a child’s on Christmas morning. He was always observing, absorbing, analyzing, deducing. He would figure out what each student needed – discipline, encouragement, extra time, more explaining, a victory doughnut – and make sure it was there for them. A sense of constant activity radiated and pulsed around him, animating his explanations and propelling his stocky frame up and down rows of desks with unexpected agility. These bursts of motion complemented a brilliant mind teeming with enthusiasm for his young pupils, for the mysterious processes and secrets he was demystifying for them, and for the bright future he envisioned for his poor Latino students even if nobody else did.
From his own experience growing up in the suburbs of La Paz and teaching at a Jesuit school there, he knew all about children’s ability to overcome challenges and obstacles in their lives; the value of consistent high standards and expectations; the importance of taking time to teach and learn well; and the power of convincing his pupils that with enough drive and desire – ganas in Spanish – they could do the impossible.
Escalante’s Early Life
Jaime was born the last day of 1930 in La Paz, Bolivia, because the village of Achacachi where his parents lived didn’t have a hospital. His mother, Sara, spent several weeks before the birth with relatives in the city so her child could be born there rather than in the three-room apartment they rented on an unpaved street with open sewers. She had traveled down from the hills where the working class and poor people lived into the valley below where the good hospitals, roads, and fine houses were. He was the family’s second child and first son. Another son and two more daughters would follow.
Sara and her husband, Zenobio, were teachers, assigned by the government to their schools. According to the Bolivian system, administrators decided where teachers would work. The family tradition of teaching reached back another generation to Sara’s father, José Gutiérrez. Though Señor Gutiérrez was retired from the classroom by the time Jaime came along, the old man enjoyed teaching him word games. Jaime loved learning from the start.
The boy looked forward to visits with his grandfather. They were likely a welcome distraction from the tension at home. Zenobio drank, sometimes too much, and sometimes beat Jaime’s mother in front of him after stumbling home from a bar. Escalante’s biographer, Jay Mathews, writes that “the father’s wrath also occasionally fell on his small son.” One night when Zenobio didn’t come home at all, Sara decided to leave him and take the children to La Paz – except for Jaime. Loading the rest of the family into the flatbed truck that served as the local bus, she handed the boy a piece of bread and told him to explain things to his father when he finally returned. Eventually Jaime joined the rest of the family in La Paz, making the six-hour trip by himself and carrying his few belongings wrapped in a towel.
His first day at school the children made fun of his clothes, styled after the Aymara Indian tradition of his old neighborhood. Yet soon he impressed them with his skill at arithmetic and sports, especially handball. He was a master on the court, or frontón, and made his own handballs by heating strips of old tires then molding them around a small rock.
Jaime developed an insatiable curiosity about almost everything. When pursuing an answer or experimenting with ideas, he focused so completely on the task that he blocked out any distractions and ignored what might happen if things didn’t go according to plan. He started building experiments and enlisted his sisters, Olimipa and Bertha, to try them out. The girls endured a long series of mishaps. Younger sister Bertha was driving a car her brother had cobbled together when it catapulted her head-first into an open manhole, covering her in sewage. Another time he reached out pretending to shake her hand and shocked her with a small hidden generator. Their older sister, Olimipa, once had her foot burned to the bone after Jaime dropped a caustic liquid on it. Chasing a handball that had bounced off a roof into the gutter, Jaime became curious about what else might have fallen down the same spot. When he climbed a ladder to investigate, he fell and broke his arm. He also gashed his forehead, leaving a scar he carried for the rest of his life.
Poor though she was, Jaime’s mother was proud of her social position as a teacher. She recognized that her elder son was bright and capable, and vowed to give him what help she could to improve his future prospects. Except for math and science, he cared a lot more about handball than schoolwork. But when he was fourteen, she enrolled him in San Calixto, one of the top high schools in La Paz. Its campus was up the hill from the presidential palace in an old mansion that was the home of former Bolivian president Andrés Santa Cruz, whose gift had endowed the school.
Entering the grounds of San Calixto, Jaime left behind the dirt and bustle of the city for a series of quiet, cool courtyards with fountains and beautiful lawns. He found his place among the other 750 boys as a star handball player who loved math, science, and mischievous – sometimes outrageous – practical jokes.
He and his new friends played handball at recess every day. It was on the frontón at San Calixto that he first used the word ganas, meaning “drive,” “desire,” or “passion,” to talk about what it took to win the game. Desire was everything, and success was the reward. To extend their playing time, Jaime convinced a friend to wedge a twig beside the clapper of the bell announcing the end of recess. The time it took the teacher to figure out what was wrong gave him a few extra precious minutes on the court.
His report card showed that he excelled in subjects that interested him, offset with a warning that he talked too much and told too many jokes. To keep the unfavorable news from his mother, Jaime mixed his report card up in a stack with his siblings’ and tried to trick her into thinking she’d seen his card when she had seen one of the others twice. When she finally saw his report, she paused for effect before insisting that next time she would not sign it if he brought home such low grades again – a dramatic technique Jaime would work into his teaching style years later.
Saturdays Jaime usually spent on homework, sometimes studying with classmates. When they came to a math or science concept he understood, Jaime stood beside a small blackboard and explained it to the others. He devoured information on subjects that interested him. He loved puzzles, and craved new concepts in math and science. He read ahead until he reached the end of the textbook, then borrowed more advanced books from Olimipa. Visiting a friend’s house one day he asked to borrow a physics book he saw on the shelf. When his friend said no, Jaime sneaked it out under his shirt.
Jaime cultivated friendships with teachers, always looking for new challenges. Even at so young an age, he started absorbing teaching methods he admired and would mimic later on. One teacher who responded to Jaime’s enthusiasm was Father Descottes, a gaunt Frenchman who taught physics. Jaime convinced him to let him borrow books and spend extra time in the lab in exchange for keeping the lab clean.
Jaime especially liked his physics teacher, Mr. Portus, who combined a fast-paced classroom style with biting, sometimes humiliating humor. Jaime loved both characteristics and would adapt them to his own style in a milder form. If a student took too long to answer a question, Portus would snap, “You sound like you had s—- for breakfast!” The teacher would ask students to repeat a joke he had told the day before. Jaime would not only retell the joke but also embellish it, typically making a bawdy punchline even bawdier. Jaime enhanced his growing reputation as a comic with tricks like tossing firecrackers under the school director’s robe during graduation.
Jaime’s insatiable curiosity extended outside the walls of San Calixto and into every part of life. He enjoyed talking with the shoeshine boys who worked the square around the presidential palace a few blocks from school. His mother disapproved – these were low-class boys and not the type her aspiring young scholar should associate with. Jaime didn’t care. He talked with them anyway. After his mother rented a room in their home to a carpenter, Jaime learned enough from him to build his own room off the kitchen and light it with pilfered electricity.
His parents had lived apart ever since his mother escaped to La Paz. Once in a while, Zenobio Escalante would show up, usually drunk. The children tried to avoid him. He belittled Jaime’s love of learning and exemplary reading skills. The last time he came he collapsed on the couch and died the next day. At the funeral, Jaime learned for the first time that his father had another family with three children that none of his brothers and sisters had ever met. His death was such a relief that Jaime cried tears of joy.
Jaime dreamed of going to engineering school after graduating from San Calixto. But his widowed mother had no money to give him, and other relatives couldn’t (or wouldn’t) help with his expenses. So he put his future on hold, picked up some odd jobs, and tried to decide what to do next. A short-term solution appeared in the form of revolution taking place in Bolivia, the latest in a succession of battles against a weak and unstable government. At nineteen, Jaime Escalante joined the army, spent most of his brief career as an observer, then returned home to scrounge up work day-to-day and think again about his future.
Escalante Becomes a Teacher
His childhood friend Roberto Cordero decided to take the entrance exam at Normal Superiór, a teacher’s college founded recently by the government, and suggested Jaime take it too. Though Jaime still had hopes of engineering school, he applied at Normal along with Roberto. Both passed the test and were accepted. One of the instructors, Umberto Bilbao, had taught Escalante in elementary school and remembered his antics and intelligence. Jaime’s second year at Normal, Bilbao joined the education ministry. When a physics instructor at the American Institute died suddenly he offered Escalante the job.
Jaime Escalante was twenty-one, still a student himself, and had no teaching experience. Even so, Bilbao was convinced that this young scholar had the drive, imagination, and skill to excel in front of the classroom. Escalante did not impress the principal at the American Institute. He hesitated to hire someone so young and with no university degree. Jaime suggested he let him teach for a week, then visit the class and see how he was doing. There was no class textbook; he would have to assemble teaching materials from his own physics books, notes, and whatever references he could collect. He had never been in a school with girls, but some of his twenty-eight pupils would be girls. He spent the first class period writing furiously on the blackboard: diagrams, notes, examples, questions. Though he scarcely turned to look at his students, they followed his explanations closely. He worked weekends on his preparations, neglecting his own studies at Normal and even cutting back his time on the handball court to come up with more proofs, better explanations.
In order to maintain accountability, upper level exams in Bolivia were given by visiting teachers, usually from other schools. The first test of the year for Escalante’s students would be proctored by a teacher from the rival National Bolívar, a public high school nearby. Four weeks ahead of the scheduled exam, Jaime gave a practice test. Almost half the class failed. He decided that the problem was he had tried to teach too much material. He organized after-school study sessions two days a week to drill the basics. Encouraged by his attention and impressed by his tireless energy, almost all the students came to the help sessions. Their success on test day was a testament to their hard work and commitment, and to their young teacher’s skill.
Along with more hours of instruction, Escalante pressed for better facilities for his students. When a new modern high school was built in a wealthy neighborhood, Jaime joined a group of teachers and others who occupied part of the new building, demanding their students share in the new space. Officials of the Education Ministry agreed, and gave students from Normal Superiór some of the new classrooms and use of the pristine new basketball court.
In April 1952 another revolution rocked the country. Though it lasted only three days, the economy was upended as the new regime turned land over to the Indians and nationalized the copper mines. Escalante’s friend, Umberto Bilbao, remained with the Education Ministry and offered Jaime a new job at National Bolívar. Jaime noted that he was only starting his third year at Normal and had no license to teach. But with his position, Bilbao could get him a job anyway. “It’s hard to find people who don’t have to teach because often they make the best teachers,” Bilbao observed.
Jaime got off to a rocky start. The principal at Bolívar criticized his teaching technique. He wrote too much on the board and kept his back to the students. He didn’t emphasize homework enough.
Jamie was fascinated with a teacher named Tito Meleán. His approach was part teaching, part theater, and all intimidation. He carried a bone in his hand as he walked between the rows of desks. Rumor was that it was a human bone. When students were too slow to answer or seemed not to pay attention, he whacked them with the bone and barked, “I’m talking to you, stupid!”
Jamie asked Tito for advice. “Anything you produce, anything that works, stop and analyze it,” the older teacher answered. “If it works, use it. Save it. Study it. And you have to know how to tell dirty jokes to the seniors. Anything to get them to class.”
Athletic, witty, and always smiling, Jamie had become a ladies’ man. He liked girls who liked to party. But around this time he met a fellow student at Normal named Fabiola Tapia. His friend Roberto’s wife, Blanca, encouraged him to pursue her. She was quiet and studious, not the loud, fun-loving type he was typically attracted to. And she was a Protestant – rare in a country that was overwhelmingly Catholic. Her father had a degree from Biola University in California and worked as a teacher while writing tracts on New Testament prophecy. The family had lost its potato farm in the 1952 revolution when it was given by the government to their tenants. In contrast to Jaime, she and her parents observed a strict no-alcohol policy.
Escalante had been skipping his own classes at Normal to prepare his teaching lessons but began returning to campus at the 11 am break to bring Fabiola salteñas, a baked turnover filled with meat, spices, and vegetables. She asked him to help her and a friend with their math lessons. He borrowed a classroom and amazed them with how well he could explain the subject. He eagerly shared his world with her – his favorite salteña snack bar, his conversations with shoe shine boys on the square, his love of handball.
Escalante got a call to give a final exam at San Calixto. While he was there, a young math teacher asked if he’d like to join the faculty. They needed a physics teacher. Jaime explained that he still hadn’t finished his studies and didn’t have his teaching credentials. (He finally finished his last credit – a math class he “never bothered to attend” – a year after the rest of his class graduated.) The director of the school said it didn’t matter since this was a private school. And so at age twenty-three, Jaime Escalante began teaching at his alma mater. Rather than give up his other work, he juggled a series of jobs at the same time, working day and night to prepare the lessons. He taught mornings at San Calixto, afternoons at National Bolívar, a late class at Commercial High School, then tutored or taught at a military academy into the late hours. His energy seemed endless and his passion for teaching insatiable.
Always on the lookout for a way to test and improve his students, he enrolled the best of them in a competition sponsored by the Major San Andreas Engineering School. All seven came home empty-handed. Disillusioned at first, Jamie took the result as a challenge to change the curriculum. To him it underscored how important it was to learn by doing. He would drill a concept until the whole class knew it backwards and forwards. Each morning he wrote a problem on the board. The first student to finish it had to explain it to the rest of the class while they corrected each other’s papers. Based on the wrong answers, he kept adapting his explanations until most of the class got their answers right. When students seemed about to crack under the stress, he took them outside for a game of handball or a cigarette. He became intensely focused on winning the Major San Andreas competition. The second year his students did win, and won every year afterward as long as he taught there.
Jaime realized that he couldn’t remember students’ names and started giving them nicknames instead. The heaviest kid in class was always Gordo (Fatso), the talkative one was Chiuanco (a bird with a shrill call), and the short stocky one was Corcho (cork). He encouraged rumors that he had been a street fighter. As a former trickster and troublemaker himself, he knew how to deal with restless and unruly students.
Jaime and Fabiola were married November 25, 1954, at the Baptist church in Cochabamba. Her parents consented to the marriage after Jaime promised to be baptized as a Protestant (which he never got around to). Fabiola maintained her strict social code including no alcohol in the house. The jovial Jaime met with friends and colleagues on his own, leaving her at home. She thought moving to America might separate him from what she considered a questionable social life. Her brothers were going to college in California as her father had done.
Escalante developed a reputation for being strict and ruthless in grading. Giving exams to physics students from another class on one occasion, he said what he should really do was flunk the teacher. He even flunked his own brother and cousin. In 1960, a small group of students demonstrated outside Escalante’s house. Another student went to Jaime’s mother and begged for help to reverse a failing grade so he could graduate. Jaime grudgingly gave in only after his mother insisted.
By the next year, Escalante was settled with his family in a comfortable three-room duplex with a kitchen he built himself. They bought a blue DeSoto and hired a driver who used it as a taxi when he wasn’t working for the family. Escalante’s students were star pupils and he had more job offers than he could accept. But the government was as unstable as ever and the economy was a constant roller coaster. Many of the brightest graduates moved away for better opportunities.
Escalante spent a year in Puerto Rico in a special program for teachers under President Kennedy’s Alliance for Progress. The teachers went from there on an American tour that included Niagara Falls, Washington (where he shook hands with President Kennedy), an education conference in Pittsburgh, and a Tennessee high school with a physics laboratory more complete and elaborate than anything Jaime could imagine.
Escalante Begins Again in America
Fabiola continued to push for the family to emigrate. The trip to America made Jaime more willing to consider it. Eager for the slightest hint of agreement, Fabiola pressed her case even harder. He considered his low salary and lack of opportunity. His friend Roberto was thinking of giving up teaching for a job in the customs office. Some National Bolívar teachers complained about Jaime teaching simultaneously at San Calixto, doubling up on salary and seniority. Others complained about how hard his tests were. And there were still rumblings about an incident years earlier that continued to dog him.
He had chaperoned a busload of San Calixto boys on a field trip to Copacabana. When word got out that they had spiked their Coca-Cola with wine, thirty of them were sentenced to be expelled. When they begged Jaime to intervene for them, he refused. He advised them instead to stick together and say that if the thirty were expelled the whole class would leave. The administration backed down, suspending the guilty for three weeks instead. The students won the standoff, but resentment still simmered within the administration.
Along with these concerns, Jaime considered that, as his wife often reminded him, if he wanted to be a great teacher, he had to get away from the city where his friends were always calling him up to go for a drink and where there were so many distractions. Fabiola jumped into action, handling all the immigration requirements and convincing her younger brother Samuel to be their sponsor. Jamie would go first, while she and their son Jaimito went to live with relatives. The family sold everything, including the prized DeSoto and the land on which they planned to build a new house.
Jaime couldn’t bear to say good-bye to his mother. Instead, he wrote her a note, which she kept under her pillow every night for the rest of her life. “Querida Viejita [Dear Little Old Lady]: … God grant that I may return home some day to live in peace. It is my destiny to elevate the name of my family and I am optimistic that I will succeed … The lessons of yesterday will be good for tomorrow …” He met an old friend for one last beer and salteña on the square, then took a taxi to the airport.
Sam Tapia, Jaime’s brother-in-law, greeted him at the Los Angeles airport on an overcast Christmas Eve, 1963. Sam and his brother David lived in Pasadena, where rents were low and the local Pasadena City College welcomed immigrants. There weren’t that many South Americans in Los Angeles at the time; that year the immigration service had allowed fewer than 800 Bolivians to come to the United States.
One of Jaime’s first moves in the United States was to spend $2,400 (about $18,000 in 2015 dollars) of the $3,000 he brought with him on a brand-new light green Volkswagen Beetle. Fabiola encouraged him to enroll in community college at Pasadena where Sam had gone. Jaime wanted to wait. He didn’t know any English and preferred to get a job first so he could learn English and save some money. Across the street from the entrance to Pasadena City College (PCC), was Van de Kamp’s Restaurant. Jaime walked in and, in halting English, introduced himself to the manager, Karl Polsky, and asked for work. Polsky answered that the floor needed cleaning and to show what he could do. Escalante tackled the assignment with his usual energy and enthusiasm, mopping the floor spotless and stacking the chairs on tables. Polsky took a look around and said, “See you tomorrow, Jaime.”
Sam, who shared Fabiola’s sensitivity to social class, was appalled that a graduate of the Normal Superiór with a reputation as a fabulous teacher would take a job cleaning floors. Jaime saw it as a first step to his new life in America. Sam drove Jaime to PCC to take the entrance exam for night school. Jaime chose the math exam because it required the least English.
The instructor gruffly explained that Jaime had two hours to take the test and could not get up or ask questions after the test started. Twenty-five minutes later, Jaime left his seat and gingerly approached the teacher’s office door. “Damn it, it never fails!” the instructor bellowed. “I told you, no questions. It’s a two-hour test.” “But . .. I finished,” Jaime said quietly, handing up the answer sheet. The teacher checked his answers on the spot. He’d earned a perfect score.
By the time Fabiola and Jaimito arrived in May 1964, Jaime had been promoted to cook and couldn’t get away from Van de Kamp’s to meet them at the airport. Sam rented his guesthouse to the family: a bedroom, kitchen, and sitting room. Their eight-year-old son entered the fourth grade (his brother, Fernando, would be born in 1969). Fabiola was distressed that Jaime was working at such a menial job. Even though his salary was more than the $100 a week he’d earned as a teacher in Bolivia, cooking in a restaurant was too working-class. She didn’t like the smog or the alien culture of Pasadena either. But this whole move had been her idea, so she realized she should make the best of it.
When he felt he was ready, Escalante wrote to the California department of education to apply for a teaching position. He was renowned in La Paz as a superior teacher and had shaken hands with the President at the White House! The response he got was a terrible disappointment. He was crushed to learn that his Bolivian credentials were worthless in California. He would need four years of American college and a year of graduate school for a teaching certificate. Cooking during the day and going to night school it would take forever.
He considered going back to Bolivia where he could have his pick of prime teaching positions. Fabiola encouraged him to change careers instead, stay in California and go into electronics. In the end, they decided to remain in America for their son’s sake. This was the land of opportunity where, presumably, anyone could succeed. In 1967, Fabiola got a job on the assembly line at Burroughs Corporation. Jaime applied too and was offered a job the next day. With overtime he’d been earning $200 a week at the restaurant, but took a pay cut to go to Burroughs. Fabiola thought it was where he belonged. He started out filling orders, but was soon troubleshooting components as they came off the assembly line. At the same time, he continued his education at night at Cal State.
Burroughs had gotten its start in the 1880’s making adding machines. The company moved to California in 1956 to get into the computer business. In those days computers were room-sized cabinets filled with vacuum tubes and miles of wiring. The company’s first customers were banks. Later they marketed their machines to airlines looking for a more efficient way to manage their overburdened reservation networks. The 1960’s brought a surge of interest from the government for its space program. The floppy disk and microprocessor, both introduced in 1971, marked a new era in electronics technology. The business was a perfect match for Jaime Escalante – fast-moving and full of new challenges. In 1972, Burroughs offered Jaime a supervisory job at a new plant in Guadalajara. He took a look, but didn’t want to interrupt his son’s American education. Also he was about to complete his degree at Cal State.
Escalante Begins a Teaching Career in America
One of his professors there encouraged him to go into industry. When Jaime said he wanted to teach, the professor told him about a National Science Foundation scholarship. He could go to school full-time and be teaching in a year. It would mean a pay cut from the $16,000 (about $76,000 in 2015 dollars) he made at Burroughs to the scholarship award of $13,000 (about $62,000) per year. There were three parts to the scholarship competition: a written test, an oral test, and a classroom teaching exercise where “students” staged interruptions. Jaime completed the two test portions, then went into his classroom where two students were staging a fight. “I’m glad to see you fighting,” he told them. “Fighting is great exercise.” He added that he’d fight them both after class. As he started his lesson, another student yelled that he wanted to talk about sex. “Let’s do this first,” Escalante answered, “then we’ll talk about sex.” He spent his time showing the class a shortcut to memorizing multiplication tables. Although they were supposed to be acting disruptive, the students forgot about their roles as they were drawn into the lesson.
When he finished he turned to the student who had interrupted him earlier. “You said you wanted to talk about sex, right? Why not? Why don’t you start? Tell us all you know on the subject.” A week later, Escalante had the scholarship.
In 1973, Hispanics passed African-Americans as the largest minority in Los Angeles. More than a fourth of all students in the city were Latino, but only five percent of teachers were. The next year Jaime interviewed with the Los Angeles Unified School District. When the interviewer asked him where he wanted to teach, he didn’t understand the question at first and thought his English was failing him. In Bolivia, teachers were assigned to schools; he hadn’t imagined he would have a choice. The interviewer showed him a map with black, Chicano, and Anglo neighborhoods color-coded.
Jaime said he wanted to teach Chicanos because he knew their language, was an immigrant himself, and one of those areas was closest to his home in Monrovia. He quickly got a job offer with his choice of Belvedere Junior High, Roosevelt High, or Garfield High. All three of these schools were in Hispanic East LA, and he would start in the fall of 1974.
Escalante visited Garfield first and met with the principal, Alex Avilez. “I see you have a lot of experience with computers,” the principal noted. “Well, I think we’re going to make you a computer teacher. We have a new program here.” Uncertain of his English, Escalante asked him to repeat the offer. Avilez said it again. Escalante could scarcely believe his ears. It was a dream job. “Wonderful! O thank you, sir,” he exclaimed. “That is exactly what I want.”
He called to share the good news with Fabiola, then cancelled his appointments at the other two schools. He was already imagining how he would prepare for the class using his experience at Burroughs and books and equipment from home. IBM had recently introduced the sealed disk drive, revolutionizing computer memory technology. The first “portable” computer (it would weigh 55 pounds) was less than a year away. Computers were poised to revolutionize education and Jaime was right in the thick of it all, ready to lead a generation of students into the computer age. He couldn’t wait to get started.
1. Burroughs Corporation history from computerhistory.org and burroughsinfo.com
Back to passage
Jaime Escalante’s biographical information in this chapter from Escalante: The Best Teacher in America by Jay Mathews, New York: Henry Holt and Company 1988