It is not easy to be a teacher. I know this in part because I remember being a teenager who thought I knew a whole lot more than most of my teachers, at least about some things. And I know this in part because my sister is a teacher. She works long days, brings work and stress home, and has to get up and perform in front of a posse of cool-oriented teenagers every day, even when she’s had little sleep, has problems at home, or isn’t feeling up to snuff. The tragedies and failures of each of her students haunts her, even when the forces leading to those ends are beyond her control.
A teacher may have lesson plans, but in reality, they bring a catcher’s mitt to every day, knowing that they will also have to field a challenging range of unexpected line drives from a very tough audience and somehow make it come out okay.
Which is to say … even experienced teachers are negotiating uncharted territory, in public, every day of the school year. And like any explorer, they get better at it. They get stronger. They learn invaluable lessons along the way. Some of those lessons, however, are harder than others.
Erin Gruwell is the teacher whose story was turned into a Hollywood movie called “The Freedom Writers,” starring Hillary Swank. For anyone not familiar with the movie, it told of a young, idealistic English teacher (Gruwell) who went to teach inner city kids at a high school in Long Beach, California after the Rodney King arrest sparked widespread rioting and looting in Los Angeles.
Many of Gruwell’s students were members of gangs; most had lost close friends or family to violence. The abuse, abandonment, and tragedy they went home to, and the limited cell blocks they saw as their lives, goes beyond what most of us could understand. But in her classroom, and through a remarkable project she instigated, in which they turned their life stories into a diary, and then a book called “The Freedom Writers,” they built another, more stable, family environment in which they could be loved, accepted, and understood by not only Gruwell, but by each other.
The results were impressive. They stayed late in her classroom, avoiding home … working first on their diaries, and then on their other homework. Their grades started to improve. They graduated. Many of them went on to college. Some now have masters’ degrees.
There was a cost to Gruwell, of course. Beyond the long hours and hard work, she lost her marriage in the process. And she—and her students—endured a less than supportive reaction from some of the other teachers and administrators at the high school. Gruwell eventually left the school and went on to teach at a local college. She also founded the Freedom Writers Foundation, which is working to replicate the success of the Freedom Writers in other classrooms across America.
How do I know all this? Because I went to an early screening last week of a documentary film about those original Freedom Writers that is being released this year, and I asked Gruwell and the former Freedom Writers who were with her.
The Freedom Writers are now around 30 years old. The two I met—Sue Ellen and Calvin—now work for the Freedom Writers Foundation, going into schools and juvenile detention centers across America to try to reach kids who are facing the same kind of obstacles that they once were. Sue Ellen is a college graduate, and Calvin is graduating from college, finally, this week. The two of them were personable, persuasive, and compelling. They are, as Sue Ellen said, survivors. The ones who got out. But one of the things that struck me was that, for all the times they’ve told their stories … they still had tears running down their cheeks as they talked of the tragedies they’d survived.
A part of me can feel compassion for parents who were too overwhelmed by their own troubles to be responsible guardians of their children. But, good lord. At 30, the wounds still hurt these “kids” that visibly. How deep must the damage go? It’s hard to hear their stories and not explode with anger at reproductive-age adults who bring children into the world and then inflict or allow such damage.
Harder still to understand—even for all my savvy awareness of status, insecurity, and turf battles that exists in the world—is the lack of support the students received from some of their other teachers and school administrators when they were trying to find a way to succeed—and something in themselves to believe in.
“How did the other students and teachers at the high school react to you, at the time you were working on the Freedom Writers project?” I asked Sue Ellen. She smiled wryly. “It varied,” she said. “When we got the chance to go to Washington, D.C. [to present our stories to the Secretary of Education] we had teachers who scheduled no-make-up tests during the few days we were gone, so we’d have to choose between going to Washington and passing the test.”
But then, throughout history, explorers, leaders, and individuals on a hero’s journey quest have often had to endure a lack of support from those who by all rights should have been the first ones waving the flag. It’s why survivors of those journeys end up with such strength. Nothing scares them anymore. They’ve seen it all.
The documentary is scheduled for wide release in the fall. But if you see a screening advertised before then, go see it—Gruwell had the presence of mind to bring a video camera to class, almost from the start, so there’s footage of the real journey the Freedom Writers took, combined with the students’ perspective, as adults, on what that journey entailed and meant. It’s very real, and very powerful.
In the meantime, you can read the stories of the students in the original book, The Freedom Writers Diary, which is still available. Gruwell also has a memoir out called Teach With Your Heart, which chronicles a hero’s journey of another kind. One gets the sense that Gruwell wishes some things had been easier along the way, and that there was a tough price attached to the road she chose and stuck with. But in the end, one also gets the sense that she has found a rich and fulfilling family and purpose with her Freedom Writers and her foundation that she wouldn’t trade for the world.
Worth checking out.
This post contains affiliate links.