The diary of a frank self-reckoning …
It was their candid self-appraisal of the chaos that engulfed them that helped lead Long Beach, Calif., inner-city students of the 1990s out of the attic of ache into the mainstream of meaningful lives.
And it all started with getting to know a young woman whose optimism opened up their lives while closing down borders with the bias buffeting them.
Anne Frank — inner-city survivor?
It was the legendary lines of her diary that dared these uncared-for kids with impoverished images of life to escape their personal hells; the halo effect of The Diary of Anne Frank led them to become journalists on their own mission.
But it was another young woman — Erin Gruwell, the green, untested teacher who only knew that she'd have to cast out her outfit of pearls and polka dots to reel in the motley group of prospective gems before her — who helped them concentrate on a future outside their concentrated encampment-style existence.
"Freedom Writers," a formidable vehicle for their journey with four-on-the-floor vroom and cushy passenger seats for Hilary Swank (Gruwell) and Patrick Dempsey, opens Friday, Jan. 5.
Gruwell is a well of inspiration worthy of a pedestal, peddling the write stuff in an era when rejected kids would rather reach for their Reeboks than let their reach exceed their grasp in the sneaky world outside their penalty-plagued personal playground.
She was — and remains — a godsend to kids sent scampering for sustenance in godless surroundings, where the crack of gunfire is often outsmoked by the crack available on the local corner.
To this early '90s scene, a brilliant twentysomething teacher with something special stepped into Room 203 — one big step from the mankind living outside the school's walls, where rich neighbors had a wealth of opportunities these kids didn't — and found room for a modern-day miracle.
And, in a way, she showed the kids in that room that they could make space for a future, with her compass of compassion pointing to the past. After all, they were not alone in a blackboard jungle where every sound and motion could mean sudden death and destruction; they had ancestors in another era of anomie who knew the pain of prejudice and worse.
Anne Frank as heroine for a new millennium? "I consider her the hero for any millennium," relates Gruwell of "the cornerstone of what I did in the classroom."
That cornerstone cemented an initially incongruous relationship between a well-bred suburban wife with eclat, and kids with a substandard existence whose daily bread was the burnt toast that had become their lives. All built with a mortar borne of Frank's martyrdom so many years before.
Picture this: It started with a scandalous scribble in class that circumscribed everything wrong with a class conflict that serves as whetstone for the worst in man. "After I intercepted a drawing in class from one of the students with a racial caricature" ridiculing one of the other students, Gruwell drew the line: "I told them I would not accept such intolerance."
The mouselike muse and the malcontents had come to an impasse, but she suddenly took back the streets from the street-savvy students.
She would not tolerate intolerance, said Gruwell, who grew bigger right before their eyes, grabbing their attention.
For kids whose field trips of favor were often poppy-related, the one she offered was eyeball-popping unbelievable. "I immediately took them to the Museum of Tolerance," relates Gruwell of that foray to the famous Simon Wiesenthal museum in Los Angeles, whose focus on Holocaust horrors is harrowing for any ethnic group.
She didn't stop there. "I made arrangements for Holocaust survivors to talk to them."
And then the piece de resistance: handing out a reading assignment of the timely tome by the young girl whose role as adolescent resistance fighter proved an irresistible draw.
But would such street-tough Latinos and blacks be amenable to Anne Frank as anodyne, and not feel jaded for the Jewish story? Ignorance wasn't bliss; it was frightening. "They didn't know a thing about the Holocaust, not a thing."
They do now. Elie Wiesel's Night turned into their daytime reading, and their arranged encounter with impassioned and fiery survivor Renee Firestone was just the "tough love" these toughs needed to soften their hearts.
"She was 'tough love,' " marvels an admiring Gruwell. "She and I talked about the kids' attitudes, feelings of self-pity."
Firestone addressed the group on the trouble-strewn streets where they lived. "She told them of all the horrors she had gone through, and survived, then said, 'What's your excuse?' "
Tough to top such tough times. "I couldn't get away with that," laughs Gruwell. "But from someone who had lived through such atrocities … well, she could."
It became grist for Gruwell's great new master lesson plan; connect, don't coddle the kids. "When I called them out" — challenged them — "it was from a place of honesty that they could understand," she recalls of chalking up a major breakthrough.
"It got their attention, it got that introspection."
It got them writing. The Diary of Anne Frank became their diurnal dare; Gruwell asked them to write their own journals of journeys lost. "Something told me," says Gruwell, "that they wanted to be heard and have a second chance."
The diaries of frankness that followed were revelatory as kids unaccustomed to academics accrued their experiences in bound books, binding to their teacher and the outside world in the process.
Present tense moments were broken with acknowledgement of the past — and a special visitor who brought with her the possibilities of hope without platitudes. They had history at hand in meeting Miep Geiss, whose soft-spoken stories of her startling heroics hiding the Frank family from the Nazis for so long silenced for the moment the rap of rage from the streets.
Geiss' visit to their classroom cleansed their hardened shells of misanthropy and made for a MySpace of meaning. "That visit transformed our life," remembers Gruwell.
"Here was this iconic figure; it was as if we were listening right off the pages of the book."
It was all so simplistic, Geiss told them of why she had risked her life while others shrank from the challenge of man's inhumanity to man during the Holocaust: "It was the right thing to do."
"That became our mantra," says Gruwell. The students "realized they could not stand idly by" and let life assault them with its battery of battles.
Race to the Swift
"We felt like we had been given this baton," and the race card took on a whole new substantive non-inflammatory meaning.
"She made us realize we had to make sure Anne's death was not in vain."
Vainglorious the project wasn't; everything suddenly took on special significance. These teens with their own sad stories to tell traveled with Gruwell to Auschwitz, toured the camp, and marveled that their own ghetto wasn't the only 'hood of horrors that was hell on earth.
These "Freedom Writers" had arrived, and their journals, such as the one excerpted below, told of their own comings and goings:
The only heroes I ever read about ran around in tight, colorful underwear and threw buildings at each other for fun. But today, that all changed. A true hero leaped off the pages of a book to pay my class a special visit.
Her name is Miep Geiss.
They also did readings on Bosnia, incorporating the topic into their curriculum and eventually meeting Zlata Filipovic, Bosnia's bravest teenager and author of Zlata's Diary, who would later write the foreword to their own Freedom Writers Diary.
It was all a lesson that lingered long after the composition books had been collected. "How could we live in a world where a Bosnia, a Darfur, a Cambodia happens after the Holocaust?" asked Gruwell.
Good questions, but then the teacher realized more than anything, she had morphed into a pupil herself. "I became a student and they became the teachers," she says of her class.
Not that everything was handed to Gruwell on a silver chalkboard. Homework didn't work out; her marriage was far from McDreamy when her husband, claiming he felt like a second-class companion, with the children of her class being the first, asked for a divorce.
Separate but equal was the trouble at school: Gruwell faced early dismissal from colleagues who thought her Energizer Bunny bit would burn out quickly and was a waste of time and resources.
But Gruwell, intoxicated with the ultimate opium that is hope, met the opprobiums with her own "Just Say No" campaign, rejecting rejection and embracing empowerment and empathy as her natural highs. She sustained a sweet smile with steely tongue-lashings of those who sought an easy way out to deal with her erstwhile hard-to-handle wayward wards.
"We became a family," says the star pupil of her Class of Criminal Minds-cum-Class Act. "A highly functional dysfunctional family."
One which she stayed with through their graduation — rather than pass them off to a new teacher for the new year — breaking district school policy with the approbation of the school superintendent.
Now a university professor, Gruwell's universal messages transcend time. The Erin Gruwell Education Project projects a long life, with its programs, services, workshops — including one that took place in Philadelphia — scholarships, speaking engagements and "adopt-a-school" programs.
She has been adopted, too, by the publishing industry; Doubleday has picked up the group's teacher's guide for publication later this year.
Gruwell has been awash in awards, as have her Freedom Writers, riding the wave of educational wizardry throughout the world. Among the tributes tracked are a number from the Jewish community, including the 1998 Micah Award of the Orange County American Jewish Federation; the Spirit of Anne Frank Award, Anne Frank Center, USA; and the 2004 Roger E. Joseph Prize, HUC-JIR.
At one award presentation, "given at a synagogue at Shabbat services, they honored us with the message from the Talmud, that 'to save one life is as if you have saved the world.' "
We are the world: "Now my students are empowered to save others' lives. That's the teaching of the Talmud."
In a way, this genteel gentile woman is an unorthodox rabbi, a teacher with the power of the poet to change the pedestrian into the unpredictable.
Her muse was a man who found his own poetry searching for rhyme and reason in a different field of dreams. "I had the most incredible father," she says of her late dad, a onetime minor league baseball player with major-league impact.
A professional ballplayer, he professed resentment of the racial injustice he saw while touring southern stadiums. What his daughter dug out from his own sense of anger was inspired by his mantra that "you judge a batter by his swing, not his color."
Color her impressed; the daughter integrated his sense of social justice into an integrity that stands the test of time.
And popcorn. "This story," she says of "Freedom Writers," "is bigger than anything, than ourselves. It's more important than a film, a book; it's about all those kids who need a voice."
And they have certainly found one in Gruwell, whose "You go girl (and guy)!" exhortations exhume life from once deadened hopes and buried dreams with modern-day miracles — adapting an Apple a day to an iPod at play with soul-satisfying tunes.
Now the onscreen "Freedom Writers" can right so many wrongs, misconceptions of poor students as seemingly lost causes. But then, finding her own way has been a journey worthy of a journal: "I learned I was a pretty decent teacher," says Gruwell.
"But I discovered I was an even better student."