As an idealistic twenty-three-year-old English teacher at Wilson High School in Long beach, California, Erin Gruwell confronted a room of “unteachable, at-risk” students. One day she intercepted a note with an ugly racial caricature, and angrily declared that this was precisely the sort of thing that led to the Holocaust—only to be met by uncomprehending looks. So she and her students, using the treasured books Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl and Zlata’s Diary: A Child’s Life in Sarajevo as their guides, undertook a life-changing, eye-opening, spirit-raising odyssey against intolerance and misunderstanding. They learned to see the parallels in these books to their own lives, recording their thoughts and feelings in diaries and dubbing themselves the “Freedom Writers” in homage to the civil rights activists “The Freedom Riders.”
“All of the teachers are out to get me!” I blurted out.
“But what about your students?" He asked. “Didn’t they sign up for your sophomore English class? Won’t they be disappointed if you’re not here on the first day of school?”
Then my hypocrisy hit me. All year long I had encouraged my students to avoid using labels like “all” and other gross generalization. I even had people who were the victims of stereotyping describe the dangers of labeling groups of people. Holocaust survivor Renee Firestone reiterated my point by telling my students, ‘Don’t let the actions of a few determine the way you feel about an entire group. Remember not all Germans were Nazis.” Now I was stereotyping by saying “all” teachers, when in reality it was only a handful who disliked me. There were actually several teachers who were supportive.
If I let a few teachers chase me away from Wilson, the kids would be the ultimate losers. They would think that I, like so many others, had bailed on them. I realized I needed to finish what I had started. Besides, I didn’t become a teacher to win any congeniality contests. So I decided to stay at Wilson and devote my energy to teaching literature, rather than perpetuating petty rivalries.
By staying, I’ll have the majority of the students I had last year. In addition to them, I’ll be getting a whole new crop – the kids nobody else wants! My class had become a dumping ground for disciplinary transfers, kids in rehab or those on probation. But if Sharaud, who graduated in June, could turn his life around, there is hope for these new students yet. Ironically “hope” is one of the few four letter words not in their vocabulary.