He has other effective classroom management techniques. He stands close to a student’s desk, interacting with that person one-on-one, as an individual, not as a member hiding out in a group. This way he can either inhibit bad behavior, or be supportive of positive academic participation. When one student, Lupe (Ingrid Oliu), rebels by refusing to take a test, he separates her from the group, placing her in a chair facing the rest of the class. Instead of his humor and antics providing entertainment, he tells her she is “the show,” and the other classmates ridicule her for being treated like a child in a time-out. Escalante turns the adolescent inclination of making fun of peers as a way to keep students in line.
The film takes time to show the obstacles in the personal lives of these students. Lupe is a surrogate mother for her siblings while her mother must work late in order to provide for her family. Angel has a sick grandmother for whom he watches over. One smart girl, Ana (Vanessa Marquez), tells Escalante that she has to drop out to work in her family restaurant. Escalante has dinner at the restaurant with his wife, Fabiola (Rosanna DeSoto), and tries to convince Ana’s father (James Victor) that his daughter can go to college and become a doctor, which is what she told Escalante she wants to be. The father has some old, sexist attitudes about girls, which are impediments to Ana’s wishes. He thinks that the longer Ana stays in school, the more likely she will become pregnant. He says that the whole family works at the restaurant, so why should she be any different. In this way, the father echoes the school math department chairperson by having low expectations for the children, and thus limiting their changes of realizing their dreams. Escalante does go a bit too far by saying that if Ana drops out, she will get fat and waste her life working in the family eatery. This statement is insulting to the father, who had worked his way up from dishwasher to owner. But, Escalante says he, too, started as a dishwasher, and both he and Ana’s father have done well by working hard for what they wanted. Even though the dad is angry at first, Ana shows up at school again, and shines as a student.
Pancho tells Escalante that they need to know how math works in the world outside of school. So, the teacher takes them on a field trip to where he worked at a computer company. A student asks what type of mathematics is displayed on a computer screen. He is told that it is calculus, and Escalante says that it will be taught to them when they go to college. The worker there tells Escalante that his daughter is taught calculus in high school. This encounter gives Escalante the idea of teaching his students calculus so that they can get college credit by passing the Advanced Placement test. Of course, the obstacles are there trying to prevent him from achieving this goal. The negative chairperson, Ortega, says that even some math teachers can’t pass that test, let alone their students who have a seventh grade reading level. She says they don’t even have the books. Escalante knows that Principal Molina wants to prevent the school from being put on probation, so the math teacher says the only way to turn the school around is from the top down, with the best students modeling success for the rest of the student body. Escalante says either he gets to teach calculus, or he walks. In order to achieve greatness, for him, there can be no compromises. Ortega tells Escalante that his students will lose what “little” (note the condescension) self-respect they have when they fail. Again, she assumes defeat. For Escalante, giving up without even trying is the greater failure. Principal Molina gives him the green light, but he must teach prerequisites such as trigonometry in the summer to be ready for the calculus in the fall of the students’ senior year. Summer school is usually for remedial courses, but Escalante wants to use it not for going backward but moving forward academically. The students toil in the heat as the air-conditioning doesn’t work, just adding another burden to deal with on their difficult road ahead.
When school begins again in the new school year, Escalante wants his students’ commitment in writing. He makes them and their parents sign contracts that guarantee that they will show up before school begins, stay late after classes are over, and even to work with him during vacation breaks. There will be no senior year slacking off. The kids are not thrilled, and one says that Escalante likes scaring them into doing stuff, but that it is getting old. But, Escalante is persistent. One girl, Claudia (Karla Montana), trying to convince her mother of the importance of calculus, tells her that it is fascinating that Sir Isaac Newton invented calculus to understand planetary motion. Her mother, another blocking agent that must be overcome, is reluctant to sign the contract, preaching the sexist idea that boys don’t like smart girls. Claudia tells her she wants to learn so that she doesn’t have to rely on a boy. Her mother, probably understanding the vulnerability of relying on a man, is inspired by her daughter’s desire to be self-sufficient, and signs the contract. Pancho tells Escalante that he has a job offer to work a forklift and he will be making more money than the teacher. They go for a ride in Pancho’s car, and Escalante asks him quickly to decide which way to turn. After the turn, he pulls over and says that if Pancho sticks with the course, he will be able to design machines not just try to operate or repair them. His point is to not just have a short range plan to make money to deal with immediate financial needs, but to work toward a fulfilling future. As Escalante tells Pancho, “You only see the turn. You don’t see the road ahead.”
They take the AP test, and after the exam they jump into the ocean together to regain a sense of freedom and relief from the trying ordeal they have endured. But, the water seems to imply a sort of baptism and rebirth, cleansing themselves of their old life and allowing an opportunity to start again freed from previous restrictions. Pancho is working under a car, grease all over his hands and arms when the test results come in the mail, He tries to open the envelope without sullying it with the grime of his labors. He is joyous as he learns that he has passed which will allow him not to suffer under, but instead climb above the weariness of manual labor.
At a ceremony at the school, Principal Molina tells the gathering that less than two percent of the students in Southern California attempt the AP test in calculus. However, all eighteen students from Garfield High School who took the test passed. The students feel pride maybe for the first time in their lives and they show their gratitude to Escalante by giving him a plaque expressing their thanks.
Their celebrating does last long as the system imposes another obstacle before them. The eighteen who passed the AP test receive notice that they are to be investigated by the Educational Testing Service for possible cheating. On the surface, they are considered suspect because of the uniformity of their answers, so the possibility of copying from each other is raised. Escalante says that the ETS is not taking into account that the students were in one class and taught rigorously as a team by one teacher, which accounts for the uniformity of their test scores. Angel is particularly enraged, but he expresses his anger and despair at being treated unfairly to his friend, while they drive, by using the new knowledge he has learned. He says, “The stars aren’t really there, ese. No, what you’re looking at is where they used to be, man. It takes the light a thousand years to reach the earth. You know, for all we know, they burned out a long time ago, man. God pulled the plug on us. He didn’t tell nobody.” Despite the fact that he is not being recognized for his intelligence and what he has learned, he has enhanced his life because he can comment on it in scientific and religious terms. A police car pulls them over because Angel hangs out of the car and yells at the police as representatives of the system that treats him badly. Angel says to them, “That’s all you know!” It is a simple sentence but it carries meaning. He is pointing out the ignorance of prejudice that assumes a certain ethnic type is worthless, and by making this point, shows his own intelligence. When the police frisk Angel, the only “weapon” he has is a pencil, which negates their assumption that he is dangerous, and points to his immersion in an academic, not criminal, life.
Although the tests are initially screened anonymously, once they are flagged, the ETS discovers the names of the students and then can investigate or not. In this case they send an African American, Dr. Pearson (Rif Hutton), and a Latino, Dr. Ramirez (Andy Garcia, in a very early role). It seems that the ETS is going out of its way to appear fair to minorities by having two men who are from oppressed ethnic backgrounds represent them. They gather the students in a classroom and try to make them confess to cheating, as if it is a foregone conclusion. Ramirez is particularly unsavory when he uses his own background to say he understands why they might feel a need to take a shortcut by cheating. His remarks are insulting and demeaning to his own ethnic group. Outraged by the way they are treated, Angel appears to give the men what they want to hear. He says that they have been caught. He acquired the test ahead of time from the mailman, who he strangled, and whose body is “decomposing in my locker.” The rest of the class laughs hysterically at how Angel satirized the assumption that they are cheaters and criminals.
After a week off, the next film is The Swimmer.