Why is this movie depressing? It's a true story about a high school teacher who managed to motivate a group of struggling students to attempt one of the greatest academic challenges a high school student can undertake. It's the true story of the underdogs sticking it to the system. It's the true story of a teacher fighting the system and winning...
Or did he? Despite the success portrayed in the movie, 1987 was the high water mark for the Garfield High School AP Calculus program. In 1987, the principal who had supported Escalante with his AP program went on sabbatical and was replaced by an administrator with a different academic focus. The teachers' union complained about Escalante's class sizes and teaching assignments, and petty rivalries and jealousies abounded, eventually forcing Escalante and his partner teacher out of the school. Unable to find support for his unorthodox methods, in 2001, Escalante moved back to his native Bolivia, where he teaches calculus at a local university.
As much as I love this movie, every time I watch it, I become depressed all over again. It's been over 25 years since Escalante began the AP Calculus program at Garfield High, and one would think that the educational system would learn from him--not only from his example as a teacher, but also the factors that forced him to leave the school, but ultimately the country.
It's not just Garfield High School, and it's not just advanced mathematics. I hear the same words that the naysayer teachers and administrators spoke in the movie spoken on a daily and weekly basis on the public high school campus where I teach. I see the same objections and doubts and obstacles thrown up by the administration and teachers' union in the movie thrown up by administrations and unions today. I work every day with the same underprivileged yet eager to be educated students as Escalante had, students who just need someone to challenge them and believe in them. And I see my students battle against the same low expectations and prejudices as the students in the movie faced.
Which leaves me with the question--what has really changed in 25 years? If this is such an outstanding, motivational movie, why has it not produced a systemic change? Why are underprivileged yet bright students routinely passed over and allowed to fail? Why are creative, energetic, passionate teachers forced out of their schools and even their professions by school systems unwilling to embrace unorthodox methods, even if those methods are proved to promote student success? Escalante poured everything he had into his job. Teaching was his life, his passion--not only a vocation, but an avocation. He was willing to sacrifice his personal relationships and his own health for the sake of the students in which he believed... For what? Nothing has changed. 25+ years later, nothing has changed.
Yes, he made a difference in the lives of those students, and of students for more years than just those portrayed in the movie, but once he left, the program essentially left with him. Despite all of his passion and sacrifice, he effected no systemic change.
And it's that knowledge that, to me, makes this such a depressing film.