Math in the Movies: Stand and Deliver

During the course of my K-12 math education, I was able to watch Stand and Deliver two times during math class. The first time was in 5th or 6th grade, and during this first viewing I was less inspired by the mathematics than by the stellar performance of Lou Diamond Phillips, whose winning catch phrase “I strangled him, his body’s decomposing in my locker” has stuck with me well into my adult life.

The second time I saw the film was in high school, during the month between the AP exams and summer vacation when teachers are generally a little less rigorous with their lesson plans. Wiser now, I was able to more fully appreciate the mathematics on display in the film. I understood what it was like to sit down for an AP Test, and while I’ve never had Andy Garcia accuse me of cheating, I think I can imagine what it would feel like. Because of this, I was able to relate to the film on a deeper level.

Recently, I decided to watch this film for a third time, to see how this film compares with other films that involve mathematics. Lou Diamond Phillips was as charming as ever – but how did the math stack up?

For the uninitiated, Stand and Deliver aims to tell the true story of Jaime Escalante, a man who gained a fair amount of press in the 1980′s for developing an extremely successful advanced placement math program at an inner city school in Los Angeles. The film tells the story of the first batch of kids to study Calculus under Escalante’s tutelage, and aims to show that regardless of your background, an understanding of mathematics is not beyond your reach.

Here’s an extremely short trailer for the film. Run, Lou, run!

Most of the time when I discuss the representation of math in films, there are two main things to consider: the portrayal of mathematicians, and the portrayal of mathematics itself. For this film, Mr. Escalante is not a mathematician, however – he is instead a very good math teacher. Nevertheless, being a good math teacher means he must be good at math, and whenever someone who is good at math is presented on film, there is a danger that the character will have certain stereotypical attributes.

Thankfully, this doesn’t seem to be the case here. Let’s take a closer look at some stereotypes of mathematics.

- People who are good at math are socially awkward.

Jaime Escalante is many things in this film, but socially awkward is not one of them. He’s a charismatic dude with a comb over to match. Sure, some of the things he says may not be entirely appropriate for the classroom, but everyone seems to enjoy it. Plus, he has a stable home life with a loving wife and a son – it’s not often that people who are good at math are shown in such drama free households. +1.

- To be good at math, you must be insane.

This movie shows all types of students, from the nerdy girls who work at their dad’s restaurant, to the wannabe gangsters with no aspirations for higher education. Many of the students come from less than ideal family situations. Nevertheless, there is one thing that binds them all together: their ability to learn math.

While some students are stronger than others, there isn’t one among them who is completely lost. They all learn Calculus, despite the skepticism that surrounds them. At one point Mr. Escalante opines that “students will rise to the level of expectation,” and in this case, he is correct. You don’t need to be crazy to be good at math. Having a good teacher, however, certainly helps. +1.

Real Jaime Escalante versus movie Jaime Escalante.

- Mathematics is inherently difficult and complicated, and only gifted people have a hope of doing well.

This is arguably the most harmful stereotype about mathematics. While it’s certainly true that math is difficult, and that there are those who seem to have an innate mathematical ability, it is certainly not the case that every professional mathematician (or those who use math in a technical career) are math savants. More often, they are simply people who had a few good teachers and were motivated to really understand mathematics.

Usually a film’s mathematics perspective is weighted heavily towards the savant end of the scale, which only reinforces stereotypes about people who study mathematics. Thankfully, this film really emphases the latter standard – that even if you aren’t the most naturally gifted when it comes to math, you can still succeed with enough hard work. All the students in the film work extremely hard, even the ones who may be better at math than the others. And aside from a bit involving Andy Garcia who plays a total tool, the students are all rewarded for their hard work, not only with good grades, but with a deeper understanding of math, and greater confidence about their abilities as students. As Mr. Escalante says, “Calculus is not made to be easy – it already is.” +1.

This film is very different from most films that involve math. Math isn’t presented as some mystical oracle that can only be deciphered by the borderline insane. Instead, it is presented as a difficult subject, but one that can be mastered with dedication and practice. It’s no wonder, then, that this film has secured such an enduring spot in the hearts of math teachers nationwide.

For those of you who may not find the film appealing, there’s always the counterpoint offered by South Park. Mr. Cartmanez may not have the heart of Mr. Escalante, but at least he has the comb over. Their teaching styles couldn’t be more different, and yet in their own way, both are successful. Somehow, though, I don’t think math teachers will find the story of Mr. Cartmanez as appropriate for their students.

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