Stand and Deliver

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Stand and Deliver

Stand and Deliver (1987) is a movie about mathematics—yes, mathematics. It also features a most unusual movie hero: an educator. Yet this independently produced 1987 drama is as riveting and satisfying as the most cleverly plotted, edge-of-your-seat thriller. It is the fact-based story of Jaime Escalante, a math teacher in an East Los Angeles barrio high school, brought brilliantly to life by Hispanic actor Edward James Olmos in an Oscar-nominated performance. Engaging, affecting, and inspirational, the film gave Escalante's philosophy and methods wide popular exposure, exercising a positive influence on American attitudes to education culture among those who saw it.

Jaime Escalante transformed a classroom of potential dropouts into calculus wizards, and Stand and Deliver shows how he did it. In so doing, the film's title takes on extra resonance. The phrase "stand and deliver" (originally a military term) has come to define how a person—any person—is capable of succeeding if he or she works hard, stands tall, and presents him or herself positively and intelligently, and thus the film's title takes on a specific resonance. The bespectacled educator's nondescript, slightly paunchy appearance in no way obscures his extreme intensity and his dedication to his job, and he wins the attention of his charges by the sheer force of his enthusiasm for his subject, and his ability to communicate it.

Several of Escalante's students start off as underachievers. A few are nice enough youngsters but destined never to progress beyond serving fast food or stocking shelves in a supermarket. Others are Hispanic Dead End Kids, macho punks with boulder-sized chips on their shoulders. Under Escalante's patient and gifted tutelage, 18 students learn the intricacies of calculus, and take an extremely difficult advanced placement exam. Each and every one passes the test. However, the story of Stand and Deliver only begins when this success is tainted by a charge of cheating, leading to an invalidation of the test results.

Stand and Deliver (the pre-release title was Walking on Water) is a multi-themed film, at once a tale of institutional racism and false accusation and an allegory of how an individual can accomplish a task through sheer will-power. In its most incisive scenes, director Ramon Menendez, who co-scripted with Tom Muscia, tellingly conveys how youthful minds and spirits can be dulled by parents who quash their children's natural eagerness for knowledge. Ultimately, it is Escalante, always aware of the pressures in their lives, who pushes, manipulates, cajoles, and hustles the kids, and gets results.

At the heart of Stand and Deliver is the wonderfully lively and expressive acting of Olmos. His performance is crammed with keenly observed inflections and mannerisms. Without ever having met the real Jaime Escalante, one can be certain that Olmos does not so much act the role as become the man. "When we see a film like Rocky, " Olmos explained while promoting the film prior to its release, "we see an Anglo in a boxing ring. I'd say about 98 per cent of us, black, white or Hispanic, will never step in a boxing ring. But imagine how people must feel when they see a film set in a classroom—a place where everybody has been. Everyone has at one point or another sat behind a desk, and everyone knows that calculus is hard. But in this movie, you realize that calculus really isn't that hard—if you have an exceptional teacher."

Most of the real-life Escalante's calculus prodigies went on to complete college. When the film was released, several were in graduate school, and one had even joined Escalante as a colleague. "You can get anything you want in this country, as long as you are willing to pay the price and the price is right," Escalante declared, nine years after his story was told on screen. "You don't get anything unless you work for it." He also stressed that schools alone cannot be responsible for educating children, noting that he prescribes the "Three Ts" to parents: Tell your kid, 'I love you'; touch your kid; and time. "It is important to devote time to your kid. The best investment you can make in your kid is time."

—Rob Edelman

Further Reading:

Byers, Ann. Jaime Escalante: Sensational Teacher. Springfield, New Jersey, Enslow Publishers, 1996.

Mathews, Jay. Escalante: The Best Teacher in America. New York, Holt, 1988.