It Takes Ganas
“Ganas” is a Spanish word meaning “motivation sufficient to act.” It was a word often used by Jaime Escalante, the former Garfield High School teacher who was the inspiration for the movie “Stand and Deliver.” As the education world sadly learned on Tuesday, Jaime lost his valiant battle with bladder cancer at the age of 79 in the company of family and friends. He helped transform a tough East Los Angeles high school by motivating his students to master advanced math and erase the stereotype held by many that inner-city students cannot perform at the highest levels.
Listening to an appreciation of Jaime on NPR as I drove to school, I was again reminded about the selfless deeds of a great educator. It also confirmed the chance we have as teachers to change a student’s life and, quite possibly, an entire education system. An immigrant from Bolivia, Jaime taught AP Calculus and other math courses for 20 years to students from one of the poorest neighborhoods in Los Angeles. His students faced incredible odds. However, Jaime, a tireless advocate and motivator, helped them recognize their true potential, as he broke down even their own misconceptions about what poor and minority students are capable of achieving.
Jaime also made clear that success does not happen overnight. In a world obsessed with quick fixes and instant gratification, acquiring knowledge and changing lives can be a slow, laborious, and sometimes painful process. The Hollywood version of Jaime’s story leaves the impression that within weeks, students struggling with multiplication tables evolved into confident mathematicians mastering theorems, algebraic equations, and AP Calculus exams. However, as we all know, reality is much different. Jaime’s successful students matched their teacher’s hard work and commitment, and it took time. They came to school an hour early, left hours after the last bell of the day, and attended mandatory Saturday classes as well as summer school. His motto in and out of the classroom was that one must have ganas, the desire and drive to succeed. Even though he was confronted with kids wanting to give up, hesitant parents, and colleagues and administrators questioning his motives, Jaime refused to lower the bar. He understood that a real transformation in learning must be matched with time and effort. Taking away the hard work meant forfeiting the learning. As I hear from many of my own former high school students who are now in college: “Now I know why you pushed me so hard.”
So it is a bit ironic that the next story to air on NPR was about Los Angeles Unified School District cutting school days in an effort to save jobs. Public education has now become an either/or equation: save jobs or provide adequate time in the classroom. We all need to embrace Jaime’s lesson and legacy. It takes time, passion, vision and support in all its forms, including money, to help all our students achieve levels of success that match their incredible potential. While Hollywood highlighted one master of his craft – Jaime Escalante – we know there are thousands of other teachers out there working hard each day to bring the same level of opportunity and success to their students. And they need our local, state, and national policymakers to show some ganas and “stand and deliver.” Adios Jaime. Gracias.
Photo information: This March 16, 1988, file photo shows Jaime Escalante teaching math at Garfield High School, in Los Angeles. AP-File