Jaime Escalante is dead, so take a moment, bow your head and thank the Great Whatever for stubborn, tireless, unrealistic teachers.
Escalante is the man portrayed in the 1988 movie “Stand and Deliver,” which I happened to see last week. . (It met two of my movie requirements: It allowed me to avoid doing actual work; and it stars Edward James Olmos.)
The movie is a Hollywood-ized take on the East Los Angeles high school teacher who refused to believe poor Hispanic kids were doomed to fail in school. He taught them calculus, they learned, they passsed the Advanced Placement Exam with flying colors. They even survived an erroneous charge of cheating one year.
Most of us have one teacher who gave us a push that changed our life direction; sometimes it was a slight veer, other times it was an about-face. Mary Donovan was mine. I was in her third-grade class in 1965-66. It was her last year before retirement, and if her energy or love of teaching had waned over her long public-school career, it didn’t show.
I was not a model pupil. Very small and scrawny for my age, hopeless in math and science, not yet confident in schoolyard sports. I missed school days often, and when I was present I was preoccupied with my parent’s exploding marriage.
In the spring of that year we were assigned our first “paper,” an independent project meant to be a page or two. I wrote a five-page draft (in pencil, yellow lined paper) and my theme was “How someone becomes a good person.” (I dimly recall making a connection between Easter and heroics, which would now cause considerable turmoil in the very secular world of public education.)
Mrs. Donovan was effusive. She showed my final paper (blue ink, white paper) to the principal. She pinned it up on the bulletin board right next to the A-plus math papers of my classmates.
On the last day of school, we lined up to hug our teacher–another thing that is probably not okay anymore. When my turn came, Mrs. Donovan held me by both shoulders and said, firmly, “Kimmie, I just know you’re going to be a writer.”
We corresponded long enough that she saw her prediction come true. When she died in the late 1980s, her niece answered my last letter. “I know Aunt Mary loved hearing from you,” she wrote. “And I know she would have wanted me to send you the enclosed.”
It was the draft of my five-page paper.