Erin Gruwell began teaching at Wilson High School in Long Beach, California, in the early 1990's. She thought that her desire to help underprivileged youth of various races would be all she'd need to succeed as a teacher--until the first day of class. Several class periods later, not much progress had been made. It wasn't until the day she had class members play the "Line Game" that she finally began to break through. When she asked them to step up to the line if they had a friend or family member who had died by gang violence, she finally understood where they were coming from. She encouraged each of them to say the name(s) of their family and friends who had been killed as a form of tribute to their memories. In the movie and in real life this was the beginning of catharsis for the Freedom Writers.
As is common in some social circles, minorities are seeded with much less expectation for their personal successes. Struggling against this mentality in her school district, Ms. Gruwell purchased with her own money copies of The Diary of Anne Frank for them to read. Students took to the story, immediately identifying with her situation in their own lives. For many of them, who had never been outside the confines of the city in which they lived, Anne Frank was the beginning of a profound change in their lives.
In another life-changing activity, Ms. Gruwell gave each of them a journal and assigned them to write in it regularly. She kept a locked cupboard where, during class, they could place their journals inside if they wanted the teacher to read them. Their journal writing and the reading of Anne Frank became for most of them the impetus wherein they realized that they could accomplish much more than their limited lives had ever led them previously to believe.
The young teens in Ms. Gruwell's class had never heard of The Holocaust. After watching the movie Schindler's list (see the deleted scences on the DVD) and attending the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles, they understood that 'it' can happen to anyone, and that it actually had--although on a much larger scale--to the Jews.
A liberating activity in the story was the Toast for Change. As preparation for the moment, wherein each student who so desired would toast to a new self, Ms. Gruwell said:
From this moment on, every voice that told you, "You can't", is silenced.
That statement had a remarkable effect not only on the Freedom Writers, but the actors who portrayed them as well.
With the exception perhaps of my year in Iraq, I've never lived in a society where I've had to live in fear. For the Freedom Writers and many like them, fear was a regular and palpable ingredient of their lives. Seeing each of them overcome their personal limitations made me realize that (1) deep down everyone is the same, with the same human needs, the greatest of which is family and a sense of belonging, and (2) that if they can overcome the obstacles that they did, my trials are nothing.
Ultimately Ms. Gruwell and her students became as a family. Racial divides melted away. Everlasting bonds were created. Honesty and integrity returned and began to prevail.
Freedom Writers is a wake-up call and a reminder to us all of what we can achieve if we first value the contributions of all, no matter how they might be different from us. It takes a bit of wandering outside our comfort zones to see such successes, but that's a good thing.