Saturday, March 12, 2011
Here Comes Ms. G
"I was only twelve years old when my grandmother died from severe burns that were allegedly inflicted upon her by my father," wrote one girl. "Uncle Joe wasn't being rough with me, which made it hard for me to decide whether or not what he was doing to me was wrong," wrote another. "When I was younger, my parents would lock me up in the closet because they wanted to get high and beat up on each other." Get the picture?
Once a peaceful neighborhood, Long Beach, California could not help but notice the faces of their children change. Not too long ago and a few miles away, National Guards came marching into the streets of Los Angeles to break up the riots sparked by the scene on TV of cops beating up Rodney King.
Then came Erin Gruwell. Dressed in white polka dots and matching white pearls, she drove from her comfortable home in Newport Beach to her first day of work at Wilson High School as their new English teacher. One of her students would write, "I always thought that 'odd' was a three-letter word, but today I found out it has seven, and they spell G-r-u-w-e-l-l."
They had been through several teachers who gave up one after another, branding them as "dumb, stupid, and nothing." Hopelessness pervaded the air. However, "Ms. G" was different from her predecessors. She had the heart to ask herself what would be the right thing to do in this situation. She realized that she had to innovate fast especially after hearing one of them say, "Why do I have to read books written by white men in tights?" Her syllabus that she just handed to them included Shakespeare and Homer.
How she was able to change the lives of these troubled teens is at the center of this story as told through a compilation of entries written by her 150 students in their diaries. These were carefully edited with the guidance of a lawyer to make sure of its authenticity.
"We decided to call ourselves the Freedom Writers after learning about the Freedom Riders who fought against segregation during the Civil Rights Movement. When we began writing these entries as a simple English assignment, we had no idea that they would one day be collected and published in a book, The Freedom Writers Diary."
Their book landed number one in the New York Times Best Seller list, and was made into a Hollywood movie. Two time Oscar award winning actress, Hillary Swank who played her character in the movie called her a "force of nature." What could be more life changing than that?
I met Erin a couple of weeks ago at the Festival of Learning at George Brown College where she told her story in front of a large crowd of admiring professors. Minus the trappings of a celebrity, she walked to the table to get herself a cup of coffee, at the same time I did. I could not help but ask, "So where are you based now?"
She was kind enough to stay and have a conversation with me, especially after I introduced a topic that is close to her heart right now. It is about the fate of some public school teachers in Wisconsin, a subject worthy of another blog.
Little did she know that meeting her gave me hope, just when I was about to lose my "Muse" in a pile of snow. In our world today where pop culture is fast becoming the only frame of reference, I needed someone to reaffirm one thing for me through her example. Indeed, only by knowing the truth and understanding the lessons of the past will we be able to steer the inevitable evolution to take a better path.
"Write what needs to be written," Erin wrote on my copy of her book, giving me a hug before she left.
* Currently, Erin serves as president of the Freedom Writers Foundation. She raises awareness by traveling nationwide to speak inside large corporations, government institutions, and community associations.
Posted by Cordi Villa at 5:44 PM