I recently rewatched the 1988 drama “Stand and Deliver.” The movie is based on the true story of Jaime Escalante, a former corporate man who decides to teach high school math in an inner-city high school, Garfield High School, located in one of Los Angeles’ poor neighborhoods.
Escalante gives up his high-paying job to pursue his passion—teaching. Entering a “hostile” environment where both the students, who believe they are good for nothing, and the teachers, who reinforce such a loser’s attitude by not challenging the students enough, constantly discourage Escalante.
With grace, he overcomes the discouragement and pursues his goal to make the students learn by believing in themselves.
After a school year of working with his first class, Escalante proposes teaching these students Calculus and preparing them for the advanced placement test (AP test) for Calculus. The first objection comes from his department head, but Escalante stands his ground.
The students rise to the challenge, 18 of them, and spend the summer preparing for a Calculus class in their senior year.
The months that follow dramatize the human struggle, the drama of reality that today’s Gospel reminds us of—enter the narrow door. It is the only way to salvation.
The extra hours, changing one’s lifestyle, sacrificing take their toll on the students and on Escalante, but true to form—faithful to his identity and integrity—Escalante keeps them steady.
When the results of the AP test come out, all 18 pass. Alleluia! The triumph of the human spirit, of faith and hope!
Alas! The narrow gate does not end. Tears come with the success.
The Educational Testing Service (ETS) accuses—no, condemns—the 18 of cheating. There is no solid proof, save for a suspicion fueled by bias against the poor, especially the ethnic youth.
In a scene between Escalante and his wife, a crestfallen Escalante says, “Maybe I made a mistake teaching them Calculus… You know what kills me? Is the trust and confidence in the system they are now finally qualified to be a part of.” He pauses and continues, “I don’t know why I am losing sleep over this. I make twice the money in these hours and people treat me with respect.”
His wife remarks, “Respect?! Jaime, those kids love you.”
This is the narrow gate that Christ talks about. At the end of it all, it is not just the sacrifices and hard work that make the door narrow. Even more challenging is the “doubt,” the question: Is it worth it?
“Strive to enter through the narrow gate; for many, I tell you, will attempt to enter and will not be strong enough.”
Escalante goes through despair and doubt.
Not count the cost
Immediately after his wife utters “…those kids love you”—some kids appear on his front yard, with his spruced-up car, which Escalante thought had been stolen from the school parking lot.
This is the narrow gate, to learn the price of love, selfless love.
Often we see love as our selfless love of others. It is. It is the love that the Prayer for Generosity petitions for, “to give and not to count the cost, to labor and ask not for any reward.”
But perhaps an even “narrower gate” is the other side of love. “I have been told that if you really love someone you give that loved one the power to hurt and pain you in a way nothing else can,” according to Much-Afraid, the main character in Hannah Hurnard’s “Hinds’ Feet on High Places”; to be vulnerable to the beloved.
This is the narrower gate, to be vulnerable to the beloved. It is often said that the posture of Christ on the Cross speaks of his love for us; not only is it an oblation, but also, more deeply he leaves himself totally vulnerable, his arms outstretched.
Part of the narrower gate of the Cross is what one theologian called “the radical solitude of the Cross.”
On the Cross, Christ felt the solitude of the narrower gate. Alone and in pain, he was at the threshold of despair: “My God, my God why have you forsaken me?” (Mark 15: 34)
Not my will
Selflessly doing good, sacrificing and even changing one’s lifestyle are laudable acts, but these only enhance our ability to enter the narrower gate. There is still that moment—the Agony in the Garden, “Father, if you are willing, take this cup away from me, still, not my will but yours be done.” (Luke 22: 42)
The choice to enter the narrower gate is made at this moment of struggle and doubt, the threshold of despair. At this point between hope and despair we are asked to make a choice to enter or not the narrower gate.
Fr. Benny Calpotura, SJ, said that many who go through the struggle and pain of the way of the Cross, of following Christ, fail to make the most important choice to enter the core of their relationship with Christ. They choose to stay on the periphery.
Henri Nouwen writes in his book “Reaching Out”: “To live a spiritual life we must first find the courage to enter into the desert of our loneliness and to change it by gentle and persistent efforts into a garden of solitude.”
The narrower gate—the “dark night of the soul,” the crucible, the Agony in the Garden, the radical solitude of the Cross—as Christ says, “many…will attempt to enter and will not be strong enough.”
From despair, Escalante pulls himself together and confronts the representatives of the ETS. He continues to meet opposition. The ETS representatives refuse to show proof.
Escalante then rallies his 18 students to make the choice of entering the narrower gate. The 18 decide to retake the test, with just one day to prepare.
Escalante “warns” them of the perils of the narrower gate. The test will be harder.
All 18 pass with flying colors. This was 1982. In 1983, 31 passed, then 63, 77, 78 and 87 in succeeding years.
In and on the other side of the narrower gate are the greatest of paradoxes. No one enters the narrower gate alone; one enters with and for all those one has chosen to love. The desert of our loneliness transformed to a garden of solitude creates a community of believers living in hope and love.
The often repeated line from the Prayer of St. Francis of Assisi comes to life “it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.”
Perhaps this is the paradox of the narrower door, of Christian life—it is the Cross that gives birth to the Resurrection.