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Finding common ground with Stand And Deliver 30 years later

Edward James Olmos in Stand And Deliver
Screenshot: Stand And Deliver
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In 1982, 18 students at Garfield High School in East Los Angeles passed the Advanced Placement Calculus test, which was unprecedented for a predominantly Latino school in California. Rather than applaud the tireless efforts of the students—and their teacher, the late Jaime Escalante—the Educational Testing Service asked 14 of them to retake the test. The testing body claimed it grew suspicious of the results after learning that the students made the same errors on one problem and wrote nearly identical solutions to others Twelve of them agreed to take the test again, and 12 of them passed it again, thereby reinstating their original scores.

I was a toddler when the story broke, and still just in grade school when the movie it inspired, Stand And Deliver, premiered in 1988. It wasn’t until I was in junior high that I saw Ramón Menéndez’s movie for the first time, when I watched it with my predominantly Mexican-American classmates in our mostly Mexican-American magnet school, which was located Chicago’s largest Mexican-American neighborhood. It’s not that the film hadn’t made waves upon its release—Edward James Olmos scored an Oscar nomination for his portrayal of Escalante, and the cast included Lou Diamond Phillips, who was coming off a well-received turn in La Bamba. It’s just that growing up in a large family made the cost of going to the movies prohibitive, and my parents were intent on buying a house. So unless Marty McFly or this fictional teacher was going to pony up a down payment, we were just going to have to be content with watching Dynasty at home.

My junior-high math teacher showed it to my class to demonstrate what we could achieve with hard work. I remember being struck by the brown faces, especially Phillips’, because I was deep in the throes of my La Bamba- and Young Guns-born crush. But at the time, students in Chicago Public Schools were grouped by ability (my teacher friends and siblings tell me they still are, but covertly) so my class was full of overachievers who were the scholastic opposite of the students played by Phillips, Vanessa Marquez, and Ingrid Oliu (who went on to star in another great coming-of-age-in-the-barrio story, Real Women Have Curves)—at the beginning, anyway.

The math teacher’s plan didn’t fail, we just felt she was preaching to the choir. Most of the kids in my class, myself included, had it drilled into them to behave well and study hard. But the goal of that “academic excellence” strategy was avoidance. Our parents just didn’t want us to end up in manual labor jobs or working grueling night shifts. Having never been to college themselves, they could only steer us away from something, not guide us toward a successful future. Menéndez’s film shares that predicament—its “stay in school” message is much more compelling and elegantly delivered than a PSA, but it doesn’t advise much beyond that. It’s not that the movie feels incomplete; just think of this as the aspirational film’s corollary to the happy ending audiences are expected to conjure upon a romantic film’s conclusion.

For its 30th anniversary, I rewatched Stand And Deliver, and the movie’s opening was full of familiar sights: kids half-awake on city buses, day laborers making their way to some as-yet-unknown job site early in the morning, storefronts covered in bilingual signage. But my sister and I weren’t 10 minutes into the movie before we were shaking our heads ruefully as a school official (Virginia Paris, playing a composite character) informs Jaime Escalante (Olmos) that he won’t be teaching computer science after all. Garfield High lacks the necessary funding, so Escalante is stuck teaching remedial math—though not for long.

What a difference two decades and an act of Congress make. After that first viewing of Stand And Deliver, there was no discussion or even recognition of racial biases in standardized testing, or of the strained resources of public schools in low-income neighborhoods, contentious topics the mostly white faculty certainly wasn’t going to raise. Besides, within the characters’ arc, which took them from flailing to passing with flying colors, I saw myself as an “after,” if anything. My parents were just as poor as those in the movie, my neighborhood just as populated with Mexicans, who, instead of low-riders, drove cars emblazoned with paintings of Jesus or La Virgen De Guadalupe. But I’d always tested well beyond my grade level and aced the extra credit portions of tests. I loved school; I had perfect attendance until the sixth grade. Looking back, I was probably seen as proof that those biases didn’t exist, that a school which had once issued warnings about the lead paint peeling off the walls didn’t necessarily prevent kids from doing well.

Olmos is perfectly cast as the scrappy educator, setting the standard for the teacher who gives a damn, a character seen in Lean On Me, Dead Poets Society, and lesser entries in this subgenre, like The Principal and Dangerous Minds. (Lean On Me and Dangerous Minds also took inspiration from real-life teachers, but probably wouldn’t have been green-lit without the success of Stand And Deliver.) But as Escalante, he’s also aware that passion isn’t the only thing needed to make a difference in these kids’ lives. He highlights their common ground, using slang and pop culture references (gee, wonder why he thought that’d work), and switching from Spanish to English as needed. I didn’t notice this the first time, but the kids who only speak Spanish and are brought to the front of the class are quietly weeded out, never to be seen or heard from again. Math is a universal language, the script for Menéndez and Tom Musca insists, but only if you’re bilingual. This isn’t a failing in their part—the scene is just a subtle reminder of how the public school system’s one-size-fits-all approach leaves so many behind.

Menéndez takes a straightforward approach to what’s by now a well-known inspirational story. He introduces the requisite tensions between Escalante and his students, who either write their teacher off or try to dominate him after years of having no one in the school system ever expect much from them. That’s what makes Escalante’s philosophy–that students will rise to the level of expectation set for them, no matter how high—so revolutionary for them. But we do see that many of these kids have serious responsibilities, as Menéndez takes us into the homes of students like Angel (Phillips), who looks after his elderly grandmother; Ana (ER alum Vanessa Marquez), who’s constantly being forced to choose between school and working at her father’s restaurant; and Lupe (Oliu), who has to help raise her siblings despite being a teenager herself. Looking back, their respective home lives feel more familiar to me than their teacher’s. It might have been added for dramatic effect, but Escalante is shown to live in a wealthier (if not exactly “wealthy”) neighborhood, where he shares a modest home with his wife (La Bamba’s Rosanna DeSoto) and their two sons. It’s a much tidier—and therefore less recognizable—existence, one that Escalante seems to have come by through his previous job at some vaguely referenced computer company.

The real Escalante was a Bolivian immigrant and math/physics teacher who worked side jobs until he earned a degree Stateside that would allow him to resume teaching. The inclusion of that storyline might have taken the focus off the students, which is probably why it was omitted from the film, not to mention that admitting a college degree isn’t always enough would derail the central “if you believe it, you can achieve it” memo.

Watching it now, I can’t help but think it could have been a key element in the movie’s “skilled versus unskilled” worker debate. As the current president continues to set criteria for who “deserves” to become an American, highly skilled immigrants with advanced degrees are much more desirable, even though their credentials are often questioned by virtue of not having been earned in this country. Escalante was one of those sought-after immigrants, but he still found himself in a situation not unlike his students’ when he first arrived. That made him an underdog just like them, a fact that could have expanded their commonality, but the movie focuses on other parts of their shared culture. It still makes a powerful point—even without knowing he’d clawed his way through higher education a second time, the students quickly accept their teacher as one of their own.

Watching the film as an adult, the respectability politics are much more obvious. We see them in Ana’s storyline: She waits tables at her father’s restaurant, but she wants more for herself, and so does Escalante. Even Angel, who stumbles into class hungover, is embarrassed by the notion of pumping some culero’s gas. The filmmakers obviously mean well, but they unintentionally reinforce the ideas of good and bad immigrants, and by extension, good and bad minorities. It’s okay for our parents to have worked these kinds of manual labor or service jobs, but once we’ve entered school, there’s no excuse for us to end up that way. But as Escalante’s real-life story shows, education doesn’t necessarily supersede the color of your skin, or your “country of origin.”

As the movie went on, I laughed at Angel punning on “calculus,” and the word problems about gigolos Escalante crafts to amuse his students and shock the administrators. Even though I scored my A.P. credits in history and English, the calculus crew’s after-school study sessions and late-hour cramming hit close to home. But by the time the antagonists showed up—in the form of the Educational Testing Service’s psychometricians, played by Andy Garcia and Rif Hutton—I began to feel uneasy. When Escalante confronts the ETS officials on their home turf, he asks flat out if his students’ scores are being challenged because of their zip code and household income.

That altercation felt familiar, and not just because I’d seen the movie before. I’d mostly forgotten about this until that day on the couch with my sister a week ago, but in that same junior high school, where I’d first watched Stand And Deliver, I was similarly sold short by an educator. My school had a version of study hall—which was really intended to give teachers a break—and at one point, the middle-aged white woman who oversaw the “class” gave me a B on one of my reports because while I’d done a good job, I’d supposedly failed to properly attribute quotes. She thought I’d copied things right out of the article instead of summing them up in my own words (I say again, these assignments were bullshit). She doubted I was truly a lexicomane, even after I correctly spelled and defined words she pulled from a dictionary at random. I was mortified; this teacher and I didn’t know each other that well, so my high test scores, grades, and placement in this magnet school meant nothing. All that mattered was where we were—the barrio—and who I was, a first-generation Mexican-American.

Like Stand And Deliver, my story has a happy ending (I mean, obviously, I didn’t die from embarrassment). My classmates immediately piped up, insisting that I was a big dork they’d known forever, who’d never cheat, and who definitely knew what “loquacious” meant. The teacher backed down after the outcry, and changed my grade. This was the year after that math teacher wheeled a television with the Stand And Deliver VHS tape into our classroom—and it wasn’t until I was rewatching the film 30 years after its release that I received the message.