Jaime Escalante, who died in Roseville, Calif., in 2010, was the most talented and effective classroom teacher I have ever known, and probably the most influential the United States has ever had.
His astounding success at an impoverished Los Angeles high school inspired huge growth in the Advanced Placement program, particularly among students from low-income families. No one was ever as good as he was at squelching the notion that poor minority kids lacked the capacity to learn difficult subjects.
But if immigration rule changes just proposed in a Senate bill endorsed by the Trump administration were in place when Escalante tried to move here from Bolivia in 1963, he never would have made it.
His English was terrible. He was sponsored by a brother-in-law and had been a star science and math teacher in La Paz, but the best job he could get was bus boy at a Van de Kamp’s restaurant in Pasadena.
The proposed immigration rules include a point system based in part on mastery of English. That would have stopped Escalante. It took him 10 years of study to learn the language and acquire California versions of the teaching credentials he had already earned in Bolivia.
He got the worst teaching assignment possible, five periods of basic math at Garfield High School. Eight-five percent of the students were from low-income families. He was 44, well past the age when great teachers blossom. But he had something to which the authors of the new immigration rules seem oblivious.
He wanted to succeed. He had a dream. Lots of immigrants with bad English are like that. His wife tried to persuade him to take a lucrative job at Burroughs, where he had become a genius troubleshooter, but that was not what he wanted.
He arrived at Garfield in 1974. He began his first AP calculus class in 1978, with 14 students. Only five lasted long enough to take the AP exam the following May, and only two passed that test.
But he kept at it. In 1982 all 18 of his students passed the AP calculus test. He was stunned when the College Board accused 14 of them of cheating. Twelve retook the test with two proctors watching their every move, and they all passed again, a triumph for them and their teacher.
When I investigated later, I found that nine students had copied a wrong answer being passed around at the end of the first exam, but the retest showed that they hadn’t needed any help. Escalante’s story brought national headlines, a book by me, and a well-made film, “Stand and Deliver,” that won Edward James Olmos an Oscar nomination.
The movie became standard fare at teacher conventions and school professional development meetings. In 1987, Escalante and the teacher he trained, Ben Jimenez, had done something that convinced me I wanted to write about hidden student potential for the rest of my life. They produced 26 percent of all Mexican American students in the United States who passed an AP calculus exam.
Why couldn’t the many other schools like Garfield come close to those numbers? It was because Escalante believed in his students and knew the power of giving them more time and encouragement to learn.
Keeping Escalante out of the country would not only have robbed us of a great teacher but (attention GOP!) a very enthusiastic conservative Republican. He met with President Ronald Reagan and President George H.W. Bush. He advised Arnold Schwarzenegger on his successful race for California governor.
Given his distaste for liberal Democrats, I think Escalante would have voted for President Trump. Like the president, he was a showman with a fondness for useful untruths. His favorite lie was: “They have special rules for me at this school and you can’t drop my class unless I say so.”
He would have been puzzled, however, by the proposed immigration rule change. Like Trump, Escalante adored America. So why, he would have asked, should we cut back on immigrants like him, when he loved this country even more than people like me who were born here?