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Erin Gruwell visit inspires APSU 1000 students, and the community

 

Erin Gruwell didn’t know what she was in for in the Fall of 1994 when she was assigned to room 203 at Woodrow Wilson High School in Long Beach California. It was to be her first teaching experience, with group at-risk students that the school’s administration considered to be unteachable.

The class was diverse, and consisted of a mix African-American, Latino, Cambodian, Vietnamese, and Caucasian students, many of whom had grown up in some of the roughest neighborhoods in the community. Many were gang members, and all of them were victims of racial intolerance, and social inequity.

Erin Gruwell tells the crowd the story of the Freedom Writers

Erin Gruwell tells the crowd the story of the Freedom Writers

The students were not capable of seeing another way for them in life. They simply accepted that their path had been set by society, and there was nothing they could do to change it. They lacked hope, so in the first few weeks of class, they made it clear that they were not interested in what their teacher had to say, and made bets about how long she would last in their classroom. Erin Gruwell refused to give up on them, and eventually found a way to make them come to believe in themselves.


APSU 1000 Students listening to Erin Gruwell speaking

APSU 1000 Students listening to Erin Gruwell speaking

The path to change came when Erin found a way to get the students to relate what she was teaching with their own lives. It started when she intercepted a racial caricature of one of the African-American students that was being circulated through classroom, Erin angrily compared it with the the Nazi caricatures of Jews during the Holocaust. To her amazement, the students responded with puzzled looks, many of the students had never heard of the Holocaust. When she asked how many in her class had been shot at, however, almost all of them raised their hands, and began lifting their shirts to show their scars. This initiated a battle-scar show-and-tell that shocked Erin, but gave her the inspiration to take advantage of the powerful energy she had sparked.

Anne Frank

Anne Frank

Realizing her students were all too familiar with violence, Erin introduced the students to books about teenagers who like themselves, were growing up surrounded by violence Night by Elie Wiesel, Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl and Zlata’s Diary: A Child’s Life in Sarajevo. Reluctant at first to read these texts, the students of Room 203 were soon comparing their lives to those of Elie, Anne and Zlata. The students could not believe the intensity of the connection that they felt with these stories.

Erin soon assigned each of the students to began to keep a anonymous diary, recording their tormented stories of drug use, struggles with physical and mental abuse, and reactions to Erin and her unconventional teaching methods.

Eventually naming themselves “The Freedom Writers,” in honor of the Civil Rights era leaders who refused to move to the back of the bus any more, the students of Room 203 changed from a group of apathetic, frustrated students to a closely knit, motivated family.

They raised funds and arranged for Miep Gies, the courageous Dutch woman who sheltered the Frank family during World War II, to visit them in California.

Soon after, Zlata Filipovic responded to the Freedom Writers’ many letters inviting her to Long Beach, and spent five days with them, swapping stories of their experiences. The visits from Gies and Filipovic reinforced the Freedom Writers’ beliefs that voices can be heard, change is possible, and that through words they had the power to affect people throughout the world.

In 1997 the Freedom Writers organized an “Echoes of the Soul” fund raising concert to help pay for a trip to Washington, D.C., where they toured the Holocaust Museum and presented their diary to Secretary of Education Richard Riley. In 1998 they won the Spirit of Anne Frank Award and traveled to New York for the acceptance ceremony. In the summer of 1999, The Freedom Writers achieved one of their most far-reaching goals; they traveled to Europe and visited Anne Frank’s house in Amsterdam, the concentration camps in Germany and Poland, and their friend, Zlata Filipovic in her native Sarajevo, Bosnia. In January of 2007, the Freedom Writers caught the attention of Hollywood when Paramount Pictures released Freedom Writers, starring Academy Award winner Hilary Swank as Erin Gruwell.

A young man listens to Erin Gruwell talk to the college students

A young man listens to Erin Gruwell talk to the college students

This was the story that Erin told the students at Austin Peay State University, but she did so much more. She gave each of them the hope that they too could change the world for the better, if these forgotten children of room 203 were able to do what they did with their limited resources what could these college students do, if they applied themselves.

She spoke about some of the many stories she heard from APSU students during her time on campus, and how they too had their own stories to tell.

Gruwell also spoke of hate and intolerance throughout the world by speaking out against the bulling of GLBT students.

Tyler Clementi

Tyler Clementi

She referenced Rutgers University student Tyler Clementi who jumped to his death on September 22nd from the George Washington Bridge after classmates secretly recorded video him in a same-sex encounter in his dorm room, and posted about it on Twitter inviting people to view the video online.

She encouraged students to take a stand against intolerance where ever they find it. “All that is necessary for evil to triumph, is for good people to do nothing” she said referencing the holocaust.

After her speech, Erin held a book signing which continued until late in the evening. She had a kind word for the students and posed for photos with many of them.

Students participated in a essay contest to win a opportunity to attend a dinner with Erin Gruwell, the winners were Chris Cuce, Dasha Smith, Erika Swenson, Jennifer Smith, Kristin Bianconi, Kristin Billote, Nastassia Bell, Rick Storm, & Thomas Carvell. Excepts of their entries are below…

The essay winners with Erin Gruwell at the prize dinner

The essay winners with Erin Gruwell at the prize dinner

Chris Cuce

Now that I was back on my feet and at peace with myself and I tried to find some sort of employment. Finding a job in this economy I knew was going to be a difficult task, but my “label” made it more complicated than I realized. “Peanuts” is what we all are, no matter our past; we are all humans; just like the peanut game had shown Ms. Gruwell’s students. Just like many of the teachers that gave up on the students in the Freedom Writers Diary, society has given up on me. Once you make a mistake, people in this town label and judge you by your past and not your future. I decided that an education was the path I wanted to take. Just like the Freedom Writers had discovered, I too realized that pursuing my education would be the best way to make a new label for myself.

Dasha Smith

The Freedom Writers were struggling through a cruel war full of hatred and violence. Instead of love and peace, the atmosphere was ripe with discrimination and anger. There was no concrete reasoning the violence. I would be proud to have had the title of a Freedom Writer because being a Freedom Writer meant that no matter what I was going through, I was not going to let that stop me from making my dreams in life come true.

Erika Swenson

All of these stories could have anyone feeling hopeless at the end of the day, but what I have learned from Ms. Gruwell was that “hope” is always in the air. At the beginning of their journey, they were all sure their situation had no hope to be gained, but by the end they all believed that “Whoever saves one life saves the entire world” (247) Similarly, by the end of the short 142 diaries, I too was sure that no matter what situation comes up, there will always be someone out there to help and give one’s own personal dose of hope.

Jennifer Smith

The Freedom Writer of diary entry 110 inspires me with his spirit and mindset to continue on with his life despite being abandoned by his father. I relate to this Freedom Writer’s story because of my personal experiences. I understand why and how he doesn’t fully comprehend the reason behind being unwanted by his father. We were both put in unfair situations as innocent young children, and both learned too early what it feels like to look out a window with only one shudder. My hope is that he and I have learned to stop looking out of the same window and found a new place to call home.

Kristin Bianconi

Since then, I had not considered myself innocent, but as used, and rejected. I took from this book a renewed idea of myself. My innocence is a choice that I can make. I don’t want any other young girl to feel as if she is alone. Similar to the other Freedom Writers, I realize that there is something much greater than just my story. I have a responsibility to others to share what I have learned and a responsibility to myself to finally and truly live.

Kristin Billote

“You’ll never amount to anything. You won’t finish high school, let alone go to college. You just ruined your life and I never want to hear or speak to you again.” These were the words from my father back in 2006. They were screamed to me through a phone call which I had made to inform him that I was planning on keeping and raising my unborn child. Reading how others have succeeded after enduring hardships gave me the hope that I too can prove everyone wrong and make my self happy and successful. The Freedom Writers diary has given me the motivation, courage, strength and the realization that I can take the world into my hands and choose my own destiny!

Nastassia Bell

The ideal life for a little girl is a simple one. In my own eyes, it is a life consisting of dress up and tea parties with favorite stuffed animals. It is a life of laughter and bring tickled by mommy and being chased in the front yard by daddy. In this scenario, I was that exception. No child should have to ensure the hardships that the Freedom Writers or myself have. For me, this book was someone’s shoulder, and voice saying, “It’s okay, you are not alone.”

Rick Strom

Now, I remember why I left Long Beach, California. I just did not imagine that seventeen years later I would find myself back in school, two thousand miles away from the city I left behind, and I am reading the Freedom Writers Diary for my first college assignment. No one deserves to live like the anonymous authors in the book – or like I did for that matter. However, I am no lost cause. I found a way out and if I can better myself and the Freedom Writers can better their selves, then anyone can, if they want to. I am majoring in Social Work because I want to help children who are experencing the same things I went through. I know  that I too can make a positive change in others’ lives just like Ms. Gruwell has.

Thomas Carvell

My daughter is ten years old. She thinks that she should be able to do whatever she wants without having to do chores, follow rules, or just being part of the family. While reading diary entry 97, I immediately compared this girl to my daughter. I sat my daughter down and made her read this entry aloud. I would stop her after each paragraph and made her tell me what she thought the paragraph meant to her. When she started reading the third paragraph she started to cry. I asked her why she was crying. She said “I want you guys to love me.” I asked her the same question from the diary: “how could she teach me to be responsible if she wasn’t responsible herself?” Since this incident, my daughter has been a completely different person.

Brittney Giles

It is not easy for people to be themselves when they are fighting the prejudgments and rumors of their peers, especially when those peers refuse to listen to the story that lies within; living becomes a battle and being happy begins to seem like an impossibility. Diary entry 55 taught me that I do not need the approval of others to do what makes me happy or to live whatever life I choose to live. I have realized that it is not what situations people get into or the things that happen to them that makes them who they are, but it is how they react to those circumstances that defines their character.

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About Bill Larson

    Bill Larson

    Bill Larson is  is politically and socially active in the community. Bill is a member of the Friends of Dunbar Cave.

    You can reach him via telephone at 931-249-0043 or via the email address below.

    Email: blarson@clarksvilleonline.com

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