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“Hold to A Dream:” A Math Ed. Connection to Martin Luther King Jr. via Jamie Escalante

22 Jan

HOLD TO A DREAM – By Jaime Escalante

“I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident; that all men are created equal.’”

– Martin Luther King, Jr.

Not to compare myself with Dr. King, but I have a dream too.  And so do you. So do my students at Garfield High School in Los Angeles, and so do our children. Our dreams may, at times, be buried – by the passage of too much time without fulfillment, by loss, by poverty, by illness, by repression or by sheer laziness – but they are there. And, as my students have taught me, these dreams are extraordinarily powerful. A teacher teaches nothing if not this. And a society learns nothing if it does not learn this.

The legacy of greater freedom, justice and civil rights left by Dr. King raises an important question for us today as we celebrate his life and work: How will our children be judged – on color or character? It is my belief that our children will be judged in the same way we judge ourselves – by the power of our dreams and our ability to imbue the worlds in which we live, large or small, with those dreams.

In Spanish, we call it “ganas.” It is a word that does not translate well into English. Yes, it means to have a dream, and it means desire. But it is, in Spanish, a much stronger word. It suggests a powerful urge to get ahead, a willingness to sacrifice, and work hard. Moreover, ganas is a desire, which must emerge from within. It cannot be coerced.

I tell my students, “Set your goals and go for it. We’re going to be working very hard – before school, after school, and on weekends. But you’re going to make it. Here’s my home phone number. If you flunk, I flunk. But if you succeed that’s a big plus for your school, a big plus for your community and a big plus for you.”

You see, to be in my advanced placement Calculus class at Garfield High School, a student needs only ganas. I don’t use placement tests. I don’t check IQ’s. There is no need to be “gifted.” If a student has desire, they’re gifted enough for me. In childhood, the flame of ganas burns brightly, fueled by the challenges of each new day – the little dreams that when accomplished, are so rewarding not only to ourselves but to our family and friends as well. Our daily lives are consumed with the desire to walk, to catch a ball, to ride a two-wheeler.”

Before long though, life begins to “teach” us that some of our dreams are “out of reach.” That the tree is “too tall,” that the dress costs “too much,” that we’re “too young,” “too weak,” that it’s “too far,” or takes “too much time.” Some of us learn this lesson little by little, blunted desire by blunted desire, reinforced perhaps, by the nearsighted counsel of well-meaning adults who are sure it’s “not possible.” Others of us learn this “lesson” with the crushing authority of the loss of a loved one, and the shattering realization that we must set aside our dreams in the name of survival.

Yes, this lesson of life can be a powerful one. I do not underestimate it, nor would I ever sit in judgment against someone whose hardships, far greater than most of us could ever imagine, have caused him or her to turn aside from the withered dreams of long-forgotten youth.

But never will I accept, or allow my students to accept this “lesson” as having one grain of truth to it. If it were true, how could greatness exist? And if it is the barriers in life that are the executioners, why should I don the hangman’s hood? No, I would teach my students that ganas conquers all; that the power of their dreams can overcome all barriers.

And what are these barriers? Certainly, one is racism. Racism might be defined as an unwillingness or an inability, out of ignorance or malice, to dream for those of another race dreams of comparable magnitude to one’s own. It has many faces – happy, resentful, patronizing, bored…. A kindly bureaucrat will suggest that inner-city schools need to place greater emphasis on auto shop and less on academics; a teacher will snicker at the thought of trying to teach calculus to minority youth from the barrios.

Racism is best fought with education. Education is the greatest equalizer. My kids are proof enough – they have gone on to the best colleges and universities in the country and many have now graduated and have excellent jobs. This is also proof of a sort that a sane society is a “color-blind” society, although the use of the word “blind” in this context is perhaps inappropriate. Blindness is not a quality of a rational or educated mind. If a sane society might be characterized as “color-blind,” it should never be injustice-blind. When factors of race become matters of injustice, blatant or veiled, society is obligated to cast its 20-20 vision upon the perpetrators of such injustice and demand and secure its remedy. Socioeconomic barriers can also offer challenges to educators in minority communities. A hungry student does not learn well. A student who must work nights to help the family make ends meet, who starts his or her homework assignment late at night, exhausted, is likely to encounter problems in class. Poverty is a formidable barrier. And when it impacts upon the classroom, it must be addressed.

But a far greater obstacle today is a poverty of faith in the ability of young people to overcome adversity, to achieve, perhaps, what we, as adults, have failed to achieve. Our schools today have been pervaded, unfortunately in my opinion, by misguided psychological precepts which often ignore the spiritual, qualitative factors of life and learning, and which all too frequently tend to look upon disadvantaged minority students as though they were on the verge of a mental breakdown, to be protected from any undue stress. After all, the reasoning seems to go, these kids are already behind the eight ball of socioeconomic stress. We must not allow them to “burn out” at such a tender age.

Ideas such as this are not just false. They are the kiss of death for minority youth and, if allowed to proliferate, will significantly stall the advancement of minorities. Minority students don’t need any more false excuses from authorities about why they can’t cope, about why it’s OK to give up. Nor do they need to have their attention turned away from real-life barriers or educational difficulties, such that they begin to nervously “spin their wheels” trying to figure out “what’s wrong with me?” What they need is better guidance, more precise discipline and a better sense of their own responsibility for themselves and others. This will not only enable the child to succeed in a chosen field of work, but to comprehend and undertake his or her role as a contributor to a culture and to the society at large.

Cries for help come from students in many different ways. Some seek to become “invisible.” Others are angry and tell me emphatically that they “don’t have to take this anymore” and are quitting. If you want to utterly ruin such a student all you have to do is offer your deepest sympathy and suggest that he or she just “take it easy” for a while. I can’t imagine a more cruel act. Only a coward would let go of a student’s hand at such a time, a when all that’s needed is a little more help, a little more discipline, a little more love and encouragement and a little more faith that, yes, he or she can make it over this barrier and the one after that and the one after that

In this manner, ganas can be cultivated. It requires a team effort. There are always difficulties of one sort or another to surmount. Parents, friends, religious leaders, school administrators and teachers must all become involved. It is not always an easy task. But if we all believe in our children and our students and maintain high expectations and high admiration for them, they will soon start to believe in themselves. And at that point, anything becomes possible.

Finally, it should be said that the possible is best fostered through the use of correct educational methodologies. These are the methodologies that get results; the techniques that make educational statistics go up. They are not necessarily the “accepted” methodologies, or the ones that originated from the proper “institutions.” Any teacher undertaking responsibility for the lives of our future leaders should be granted the full authority to use any educational methods he or she finds workable, and to reject at once those that do not result in students who fully understand what they have learned. Such a teacher should be held accountable, but solely on the basis of the achievement of the students under his or her care.

Similarly, school principals, school board leaders, parent-teacher associations, governmental bodies and educational institutions should search out and identify, without prejudice as to race or place of origin, provably workable educational methods and demand that they be piloted and, if found effective, implemented. When I first decided to teach calculus at Garfield High School I was often told that: “it can’t be done.” Then, we did it. We developed, in an inner-city school, one of the top ten high school math programs – public or private – in the United State and were told, in effect, “well, you certainly do have wonderful personalities, but you simply have nothing of substance, no program which can be passed on to others.” So narrow and ingrained was the frame of reference against which we were evaluated that our methods and structures were literally invisible.

Lest anyone think I advocate on my own behalf, I hasten to add that while I have been blessed with bright, hard-working students and the support of many in my community, there are literally hundreds of teachers in this country possessed of educational abilities far greater than mine. It is time they received the support they have so long and so desperately needed from their schools and community leaders in both the public and private sectors. Do we need any more evidence that what has been accepted and used in the recent past has been, in the main, ineffective?

And to students everywhere, I pledge my support. My advice to you parallels my thoughts on education itself: find the ganas in your life – something you like, something which captures your imagination, something you can do to help others, to improve the world. Something that makes you dream. Then find a parent or a teacher or a friend – someone with as much ganas as you, someone who knows you can’t be stopped, someone who won’t let you let yourself down. And know that if you have desire, you have rights too. And one of those rights is the right to workable and understandable educational methods and materials and a teacher who will match your efforts stride for stride. You’re the best hope of the future. You’re going to make it. All you need do is learn well Dr. King’s lesson of the power of a dream, and holding to a dream. The rest – incredibly, miraculously, and inexorably – will almost take care of itself.

This article was written on the occasion of Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday..

Jaime Escalante and the Foundation for Advancements in Science and Education

Escalante, J. (1990). Hold to a dream. In Network News & Views (The Educational Excellence Network), 9(2), 14-16

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