According to her father, Erin Gruwell has been blessed with a burden. As the teacher of Freshman English at a newly integrated high school in California, Erin will not rest until she finds a way to reach out to her troubled students.
"We are all ordinary people. But anyone can turn on a small light in a dark room."
-Miep Gies from Freedom Writers
Freedom Writers is a true story about classroom 203 at Woodrow Wilson High School in Long Beach California. In the early nineties following the Rodney King riots, there was great racial strife and tensions between ethnic groups ran high.
Fresh out of college, idealistic Erin Gruwell was assigned to teach Freshman English to kids considered “unteachable” and “at risk”. Most of these kids lived in the projects, where poverty, homelessness and gang violence penetrated each part of everyday life. Erin was eager to teach, but this fiery class was not eager to learn.
This is the place many of us get to in life and decide to throw up our hands. We begin with the best of intentions and try to overcome adversity or injustice, but once we are met with some resistance, we cry that we tried, and then give up.
This is the strength and beauty of Erin Gruwell. In spite of adversity, Erin remained steadfast to with finding a way to get through to these kids. Her efforts did not reach critical mass until a racially derogatory drawing of a student made its way into her hands. Erin related the drawing to the profiling against Jews that occurred in Germany prior to WWII and anger welled up inside her. This pivotal moment opened the eyes of the students.
It was as if somehow the darkness beckoned the light.
When we hold on to the truth that darkness cannot exist where there is light—no matter how small the flame,it is only then that we have a chance at transformation. In order to make a small light grow, we have to keep our own flame alive. Once others begin to see that light, it might inspire them to perhaps ignite their own light within.
The mere act of looking at our own darkness can invoke light. We cannot see what is dark unless a light is shone upon it. As Erin taught these kids about the Holocaust and encouraged them to explore their own stories of pain through journaling, slowly the students opened up. Racial barriers came down, an interest in reading and writing ensued. One by one they brightened, until eventually the whole room lit up and a bond was cemented.
The result of this act of love was a book, a movie, a non-profit organization dedicated to assisting educators to effectively teaching the unteachables, and the innumerable lives that have been touched by classroom 203.
As Erin Gruwell shows us, the decision to open our hearts and let our love flow out in any situation is how we change the world. It’s a familiar trap to think that making a difference in this world means it has to be big and affect many. It doesn’t. All of us have the power to make a difference in the lives of those around us. Shining your light can be as simple as offering a smile or being a good listener, the decision not to gossip or not react to unkind words. It is any choice you make to hold on to what is good and not succumb to the darkness. To make the change we want to see in the world, we must hold on to our light in the darkest of times. In doing so, we can all turn on a light in a dark room.
For more information about the Freedom Writers visit: www.freedomwritersfoundation.org