Story and Photo by Marianne Salza
On September 26, Erin Gruwell, whose compelling journey with her 150 “at-risk” 9th graders was depicted in the 1999 book, The Freedom Writers Diary, and the 2007 movie, Freedom Writers, visited Lynn English High School to explain how writing influenced and transformed her students’ lives. Initially divided by intolerance and apprehension, the Freedom Writers classroom ultimately became a family who found courage and strength with each other.
“At 14 years old, my kids didn’t care about Shakespeare or sonnets, they cared about survival,” said Gruwell. “My kids knew what it was like to look over their shoulders, and to walk down the street with a bullseye on their chest.”
The Long Beach, California, teens struggled with not knowing where their next meal would come from. These students, labeled “unteachable,” were not excited about reading books. None of them had ever read a book cover-to-cover, or even visited a book store or library.
“I realized that I had to find stories that spoke to my students. Stories that were real. Stories that were relevant,” Gruwell said.
Gruwell recalled the defining moment in her Woodrow Wilson High School classroom that began an incredible chain reaction: Carlos, a former gang tagger who went from calling her ‘Ms. G’ to lovingly, ‘Mama G’, boldly asked what the Holocaust was.
Another of “Ms. G’s” favorite scenes in the movie is when her character, portrayed by Hilary Swank, moves the desks and chairs to the side of the room, and lines a piece of tape down the center of the floor for an interactive exercise.
“I wanted my students who weren’t ready to raise their hands to still have a voice and to be seen,” said Gruwell. “I asked my students questions: Who are you? What have you seen? Where do you come from?”
Stand on the line if you have Snoop Dogg’s latest CD. Stand on the line if you know someone who is poor. Stand on the line if you know someone who has ever been homeless.
One by one, students, who had felt invisible and alone, planted their feet on the tape, realizing the common adversities they shared.
Ms. G asked students in the Lynn High School auditorium the same questions that she had asked her classroom all those years ago. Still today, those questions resonated with students and created a silent sense of solidarity, revealing students’ struggles with homelessness, poverty, violence, and mental illness.
“They could turn that pain into purpose. That story can have a happy ending. Whatever brought them to that line didn’t have to define them forever,” said Gruwell about her Freedom Writers. “Purpose made them into superheroes. If they’re knocked down, they get back up stronger.”