Stand and Deliver

I went out to the office to get in some work. It’s still quiet and peaceful because the semester hasn’t started yet. I went grocery shopping and had lunch. Later, I found a 1968 A’s cap on sale for $10 and bought it. I went out looking for calendars and spent too much time settling on three of them. I walked over to CVS and bought a Scooby-Doo Pez dispenser set for five dollars. At one of the used clothes shops, I found a Barry Zito jersey for $20 and bought it. Back at home, I watched the DVD of “Stand and Deliver.” I saw it when it was in the movie theatres back in 1988, and I don’t recall seeing it since. The movie gives the impression that Jaime Escalante had his success within about two years of teaching, but he actually began teaching at Garfield High School in 1974. It wasn’t clear to me what the time period of this story was for a long time because the only indication was the posters of Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. When we see the tests that the students take, we finally see that it is 1982. Watching the classroom scenes made me think back to the television series “Room 222,” which I remember faintly. Escalante did something with his fingers and hands to illustrate multiplication by nine, which I had never seen before. Also, I thought that if his class was going over integration by parts before the Christmas break, they were making very good progress. It seemed that several of the actors looked too old to be portraying high school students. Edward James Olmos had his hair thinned and gained twenty pounds for his role, which would almost guarantee Oscar consideration in itself. From what the movie shows, you had to wonder if the students were learning something substantial about the subject matter, or just a lot of shortcuts to get through tests. Escalante in real life was so discouraged at the sorry state of the students that he considered going back to his old job. If he really went to all those lengths to reel students back in, I would think that he’d be totally exhausted all the time. I couldn’t see myself teaching high school students. The school in the movie was in a bad state, with teachers assigned to the wrong subjects, and no computers around. The school’s accreditation was threatened. Everyone seemed resigned to the chaotic state, and teachers were quitting. Lou Diamond Phillips acted tough in the early scenes with his dark glasses, which made me laugh. It’s interesting because you sometimes see these students with the hard exterior but the thoughtfulness underneath in real classrooms. One thing I noticed was a Diet Pepsi can, which didn’t seem to belong to 1982, but indicated product placement. Escalante worked so hard that he had a heart attack, apparently for dramatic purposes of this movie, because in reality he had trouble with his gall bladder. The only other actor I recognized was Andy Garcia, who was in “The Untouchables.” Here, he’s the bad guy who has suspicions about the students cheating. I knew that Angel was going to make a bad joke in the confrontation scene. How annoying teenagers can be. The moment that surprised me was Escalante’s threat towards Garcia. One thing about teaching math is that it’s impossible to go from the multiplication of fractions to calculus in a year. There is some compression of events going on. I still have a warm feeling about this movie, though, because I found it inspiring. If some jackass students could pull themselves together to pass an AP exam, then I could accomplish more. When my friend Daniel was concerned about going to college and getting through his math requirement, he wrote a letter to Escalante in Sacramento asking for encouraging words. In support, I wrote a letter, too. One thing that is sad in retrospect is that the movie was filmed around the time of Escalante’s peak of success at Garfield High School. Frictions flared up, along with envy, and he left the school in 1991. The math program would go downhill. Escalante returned to Bolivia in 2001. He went through treatments for bladder cancer, but died on March 30, 2010. Movies about education and school can turn out to be crappy. I give a lot of credit to Edward James Olmos and Ramón Menéndez for producing something that stood apart and above the rest. It was a movie that made a difference to me. I thought about it a lot in the years going through school on my way to becoming a math teacher. The other roles that I remember Edward James Olmos for are Castillo in “Miami Vice,” Gaff in “Blade Runner,” and El Pachuco in “Zoot Suit.” One of his first credits was as Chicano #1 in “Aloha, Bobby and Rose” in 1975. Recently, I saw him in a Portlandia episode. He is 67 years old now. Unfortunately the image quality of the DVD of “Stand and Deliver” that I watched was not too good, perhaps a shade better than a VHS tape. I didn’t hear any notable music on the soundtrack. The closing song was done by Mr. Mister, one of your characteristic 1980s rock bands. I don’t remember “Kyrie” or “Broken Wings.” The last shot of the movie showed Escalante walking away from the camera down a hallway. He was allowed to have his moment of triumph. Some of the people who died on January 9 include Peter Cook (1995), Jesse White (1997), and Peter Yates (2011). Today is a birthday for JK Simmons (60), Crystal Gayle (64), Jimmy Page (71), and Joan Baez (74).

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