Calculus Wiz’s Hard Work Is Integral to Success

Cedrick in his Calculus AB class (Photo courtesy of Los Angeles Unified School District)

Cedrick in his Calculus AB class (Photo courtesy of Los Angeles Unified School District)

Even during the excitement of an election year, morale can sink to the belief that the American Dream is nothing but a Powerball ticket. The atmosphere nourishes the impression that Americans worry most about: the spike at the fuel pump following an oil spill, new limits on gun purchases after a massacre, and the reputations of Southern belles and their dapper gents who donned drab gray to fight for a noble cause each time bureaucrats remove a Confederate flag. 

It’s plain mean to hold such views and cynical to think they’re common. The antidote is an old-fashioned feel-good story.

Throughout the nation’s history, two reliable founts of renewal and hope have been youth and immigrants.  There are still people who escape their impoverished, superstitious homelands to come to the U.S. seeking opportunities to give their kids a better life.  Cedrick Argueta, age 17, comes from a family like this.

Cedrick benefits from the hard work of his father, Marcos Argueta, a maintenance worker from El Salvador, at the same Bonnie Brae Convalescent Hospital near downtown Los Angeles that employs Cedrick’s mother, Lilian Argueta, a nurse from Manila.  Cedrick is the talk of the town after attaining a perfect score on the Advanced Placement Calculus AB exam.  The senior at LAUSD’s Abraham Lincoln High School is one of only 12 high school students worldwide to hold this distinction.

Hard Work, Modesty and Social Studying

After completing the three-and-a-half-hour exam last May, Cedrick knew he nailed it. “I was confident because I had a lot of preparation going in,” he recalls. “My math teacher, Mr. Yom, kept our class in after school every day and on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays.  Everyone in my class felt we would do well."

Of his teaching methods, math teacher Anthony Yom states: “Calculus and its applications are definitely fascinating and eye-opening for many students. I use a couple of strategies to make the subject matter appealing and motivating to students. Instead of my students solving application problems from textbooks, students solve application problems I create that are about students in the classroom and are relevant to their daily lives.”

Mr. Yom further states: “This context makes the content of calculus easier for students to connect with. After each quiz and test, students are assigned to correct their mistakes and explain the reason behind each of their errors. These corrections are compiled by the students throughout the year in a ‘correction binder’ that they can study from and learn from their errors. It’s their way of promising themselves that they will never make the same mistake.”

With his little lecture, Mr. Yom crushed the old-school tradition of cramming for a final the night before.

Cedrick (right) with teacher Anthony Yom (Photo courtesy of Los Angeles Unified School District)

Cedrick (right) with teacher Anthony Yom (Photo courtesy of Los Angeles Unified School District)

An all-school assembly, Twitter congratulations from Hillary Clinton and a feature article in The Los Angeles Times have done more to deepen Cedrick’s humility than burnish his ego. “I want to stress while the spotlight is on me and my teacher, it definitely wasn’t just me or him.  My whole class and everyone at Lincoln High supported me and gave me the resources I needed. Eighty-five percent of us got a 5, the maximum score on the test,” Cedrick proves his dexterity with proportions, too.

He belongs to a tightknit group of classmates who have studied together since elementary and middle school.   As he approaches graduation, Cedrick describes his mood as “bittersweet” as he and friends commit to different colleges.

The one accolade that would make hundreds of hours of preparation worthwhile for Cedrick is an acceptance letter from the California Institute of Technology.  Come May, Cedrick will learn whether he will be moving to Pasadena this fall to join about 240 other valedictorian freshmen from around the world. He expects to study engineering at Caltech’s Jet Propulsion Lab on his way to becoming rocket scientist.  “I’ve always wanted to design a spaceship to go to Mars,” confides Cedrick.

The Mom Behind the Man

Cedrick can’t remember a time when he wasn’t fascinated by science. “People called me a nerd. In grade school my nickname was ‘Discovery Channel’ because that was my favorite TV channel.” 

Argueta is Basque for “a place of abundant light.” His first name recalls Cedric Diggory, Hogworts’ Triwizard Champion played by Robert “Twilight” Pattinson in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. So, perhaps not so coincidentally, the J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series are Cedrick’s favorite books.

Lilian knew she had a special son when he entered his first math competitions in fourth grade and won them.  “Cedrick’s scientific mind didn’t come from me,” Lilian says. “I started out majoring in engineering at Far Eastern University in Manila but didn’t continue.”

Not to say Lilian doesn’t take some credit for the academic success of Cedrick and his younger sister, Karen.  “Before they started school, I started taking them to libraries. I always bought them books at an early age.” 

A nursing degree isn’t quite the road less traveled for Filipinas, but it did lead Lilian to a work schedule of eight-hour shifts, seven days a week that allowed her family to afford their Cypress Park house near the Math, Science and Technology Magnet at Lincoln High.

The one accolade that would make hundreds of hours of preparation worthwhile for Cedrick is an acceptance letter from the California Institute of Technology. 

“I’ve lived in America since 1992. My parents are still in the Philippines. There are more opportunities here than over there.  In the Philippines so many college graduates can’t find a job.”  

Her journey was solitary without relatives in the United States for support (or to support).  She married Marcos in 1997. Lilian does not bemoan that her Filipino culture has less influence on her children than the Salvadoran culture they experience through her in-laws in Los Angeles.  The children speak Spanish but not Tagalog. Despite the strong Catholic ties in their home countries, Lilian and Marcos did not raise their children in the Church.  “I don’t care for the Filipino superstitions,” she rationalizes.

Despite a job that keeps her constantly away from home, Lilian has held her ground to preserve one Filipino value. “I want my children to retain the Filipinos’ respect for their elders,” she insists.  She used to bring Cedrick to work to play bingo with frail patients. She adds that Cedrick and Karen filled their minds with the culture when “I took them to the Philippines in 2011.”

Longing for the Philippines

Bingo nights ended around the time Cedrick discovered movies and the oeuvre of Quentin Tarantino, the neo-noir auteur behind Pulp Fiction, Django Unchained and The Hateful Eight.  Of course, his cinematic tastes include sci-fi fare.  “I like all space movies, Gravity, The Martian, Deep Impact and others,” he proclaims. 

Star Wars may have been an intentional omission because its stories take place galaxies from Earth. He likes our solar system and isn’t done exploring the third planet from the sun.

The Philippines trip gave Cedrick an appreciation of his mother’s culture beyond his love for her adobo, his favorite dish. “I visited the Philippines in the seventh grade.  It was definitely one of the best vacations of my life. My family members were all so nice. The kindness of Filipinos impressed me.  I really want to go back there in the near future,” vows Cedrick.

We pray that the Philippines still controls part of the South China Sea when Cedrick’s rocket ship splashes down after a Mars mission. Until then, the young searcher pursues his roots close to home. “My favorite restaurant is Jollibee,” he says of the Filipino chain restaurant located in the Eagle Rock suburb of Los Angeles within three miles of St. Dominic Church.

Anthony Maddela

Anthony Maddela

Anthony Maddela is the nephew of Efren Edwards, who passed away at age 84 in January. Uncle Efren was an oral history keeper for Seattle Filipinos of his generation.

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