The late Jaime Escalante, the math teacher who transformed a tough East Los Angeles high school and inspired the movie "Stand and Deliver," embodied such a passion for learning that it was contagious.
So much so that it inspired the President of the United States to comment on the death of Escalante, 79, who lost his battle to bladder cancer on Tuesday in Reno, Nev., where he was undergoing treatment.
Mr. Obama praised Escalante's dedication for teaching inner-city students calculus, saying "The students whose lives he changed remain the true testament to his life's work."
Mr. Obama, an advocate for higher education and accountability in the school systems, recognized the way the teacher stressed the importance of rising above, regardless of where you were raised.
"Throughout his career Jaime opened the doors of success and higher education for his students one by one, and proved that where a person came from did not have to determine how far they could go," Mr. Obama said. "He instilled knowledge in his students, but more importantly he helped them find the passion and the will to fulfill their potential.
He also pointed out that Escalante "represented countless, valiant teachers throughout our country whose great works are known only to the young people whose lives they change."
Gaston Caperton, president of the College Board, sponsor of the Scholastic Assessment Test and the Advanced Placement exams, told The L.A. Times that "Jaime Escalante has left a deep and enduring legacy in the struggle for academic equity in American education."
"His passionate belief [was] that all students, when properly prepared and motivated, can succeed at academically demanding course work, no matter what their racial, social or economic background. Because of him, educators everywhere have been forced to revise long-held notions of who can succeed," Caperton added.
An immigrant from Bolivia, Escalante transformed Garfield High School by motivating struggling students to excel at advanced math and science. The school had more advanced placement calculus students than all but three other public high schools in the country.
Edward James Olmos played Escalante in the 1988 film based on his story.
"Jaime exposed one of the most dangerous myths of our time - that inner city students can't be expected to perform at the highest levels," Olmos said. "Because of him, that destructive idea has been shattered forever."
Escalante was a teacher in La Paz before he emigrated to the U.S. and had to study English at night for years to get his California teaching credentials.
He often used the word "ganas," which means desire in Spanish, to encourage his students.
At first he was discouraged by Garfield's "culture of low expectations, gang activity and administrative apathy," Miller said.
Gradually, he overhauled the school's math curriculum, requiring all students to take algebra while enabling those who were previously considered unteachable to master math and pass the advanced placement calculus test. He believed in his students and built their confidence.
Escalante left Garfield in 1991, taught at schools in Sacramento and retired to Bolivia in 2001.
The cast of "Stand and Deliver" to help Escalante pay for his alternative cancer treatments.