Last Friday I attended an amazing talk by Erin Gruwell. Gruwell is the teacher, portrayed by Hilary Swank, in the movie Freedom Writers. Gruwell was a teacher in a high school in Long Beach, CA. Her students were some of the most difficult, at-risk students one can imagine: some were gang members, some had been to juvenile hall, some had lost a parent, some had a parent in jail, many had seen a friend or family member shot. As one of her students told her, they were kids in an "undeclared war zone". A normal school curriculum just did not make sense for such kids.
Gruwell decided to introduce these kids to the writings of other kids who lived in war zones: Anne Frank, Elie Wiesel (Nobel Peace Prize winning author of numerous books including Night which describes his experiences during the Holocaust), and Zlata Filipovic (who wrote from war-torn Sarajevo). In her talk, Gruwell recounted how her students felt that they would have nothing in common with these writers. But when one of them started reading Anne Frank's diary and encountered the line "I sometimes feel like a bird in a cage and just want to fly away", she felt as if Anne Frank was writing directly to her! This girl, whose father was in San Quentin and who had herself been to juvenile hall, was so taken by the diary that she read the whole book. And she was utterly crushed to find that Anne Frank doesn't make it---if someone as good as Anne Frank couldn't make it, what would become of her?
But then another student, a member of the Cripps gang, told her that, in fact, Anne Frank did make it---she lives to this day through her diary! That was an eye-opening moment for all the kids. And they resolved to document their experiences as they went through high-school. The diaries of these kids has now been published as the book The Freedom Writers Diary.
Gruwell's talk recounts all of this and much more. It is an utterly inspirational and moving talk. You will have tears in your eyes as you listen to her. (I will add a link to the talk as soon as it is posted on Google Video).
We haven't yet seen Freedom Writers (the movie), but we're definitely going to see it soon. However, a colleague tells me that Erin Gruwell is much more inspirational in real life than Hilary Swank is in the movie! So be sure to catch the video.