Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Stand and Deliver, Again and Again

As Jen has pointed out on this blog a time or two, I have deep East L.A. roots. I was born there, grew up there, my parents still live in the same house. And though my life and career have taken me to faraway places, it's ingrained in me. And now that I have children, it's been great sharing this part of my identity with them, showing them where I came from.

It wasn't always this easy to reconcile where I came from with what I was trying to achieve. A good friend I went to school with in our neighborhood once told me that living in East L.A. is like being a crab in a barrel full of them. In other words, as one draws closer to the edge, nearing escape, the other crabs will pull it back in.

Some of us were strong enough to get out, like this friend I mentioned. We were blessed to have strong families who loved us no matter what, even if they didn't fully comprehend what we were doing. They knew we were trying to do the right thing, make a better life for ourselves. We also had teachers in our lives who believed in us and taught us lessons that went beyond the subject matter at hand. They taught us to have that desire to achieve our dreams.

One such educator, quite possibly the most famous one to come out of East L.A., died Tuesday. Jaime Escalante, who was etched in the pop culture tapestry forever by Edward James Olmos' portrayal of him in the 1988 movie "Stand and Deliver," had been battling cancer in recent months. He touched so many lives, including those of his students, whom he pushed to extraordinary heights in his AP calculus classes.

Even those of us who did not have him for a teacher felt his influence. I always remember watching this movie for the first time with my parents, absorbing this uplifting story of ganas, desire, and what you can acheive with it. And the best part, at least for us, it was happening in our neighborhood! Really? In East L.A., you can dream big? It was quite a revelation. As Olmos himself said after the movie came out:

"Jaime exposed one of the most dangerous myths of our time - that inner-city students can't be expected to perform at the highest levels. Because of him, that destructive idea has been shattered forever."

Baseball great Jackie Robinson once said, "A life is not important except in the impact it has on other lives." Undoubtedly, Mr. Escalante achieved this sentiment. And even though he has passed away, his life will still continue to be important, thanks to all those he inspired (directly and indirectly) and it will continue to impact other lives, thanks to those lessons learned that we pass on to our children.

Que descanse en paz, Senor Escalante.

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