Freedom Writers’ Erin Gruwell speaks at WCSD EPIC2 Event

ERIN GRUWELL’S and the Freedom Writers’ tale of triumph over circumstances brought tears to the eyes of many in attendance.

tory and photos by JENNA BAILEY

On Friday, August 3, at Freeport High School the Walton County School District (WCSD)
held their EPIC2 event to welcome new and returning teachers. To encourage and inspire the educators in attendance to give it their all this school year, American teacher Erin Gruwell of the Freedom Writers Foundation (www.freedomwritersfoundation.org), spoke on her experience teaching troubled youth to realize their potential and discover a passion for reading and writing.

In a public school in California in the mid-’90s, many of the students who entered enthusiastic, 23-year-old Erin Gruwell’s freshman English class weren’t thinking about how to make it to graduation, but how they could make it to 16 years old. Racial and gang tension had peaked and a record 126 murders had occurred in Long Beach that year. With the external stresses of a divided city, the students of Room 203 were uninterested in the education system that had already failed them on multiple occasions. Gruwell’s students had been written off as unteachable and below average. Regardless of what her peers or family tried to tell her, Gruwell sought to engage her jaded students.

She brought in literature written by teenagers who looked and talked like them, who faced struggles just like theirs. Despite the fact that it would likely cost her five years to pay the books off, Gruwell purchased 150 copies of “Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl” and “Zlata’s Diary: A Child’s Life in Sarajevo.” Gruwell spoke on her thoughts in the moment leading to the life-altering purchase. “In that moment, I just wanted that boy to see what I saw. To see what you see when you look at that sea of students and your see their promise. You know their potential. You will bring light to a very dark place. I wanted this boy to realize he was brilliant.”

The students soon realized that if they could relate to the complete strangers in their books, they could certainly relate to one another. They started to form a diverse family, accepting of all, that they named the “Freedom Writers” after the 1960s Civil Rights activists, the Freedom Riders. In this newly formed safe space, the Freedom Writers began writing anonymous journal entries about the adversity they faced. They felt free to write about gang violence, abuse, drugs, love, and everything else real teenagers dealt with on a daily basis. In 1999, the rawness and honesty of their journals was published in a book called, “The Freedom Writers Diary.” In 2007, Gruwell and the Freedom Writers’ story was adapted into a movie titled “The Freedom Writers.”

Gruwell decided to have a day of fun with her students. They played games, choreographed fun dances and then, at the end, Gruwell presented her students with plastic champagne glasses full of sparkling apple cider. The idea was that each student would pick up a glass and pledge for a change. The first student to do so was a girl who believed she would become pregnant by the time she was 16 years old, as members of her family had before her. In that moment, the girl pledged that she would divert from that path and find better for herself.

OUTSTANDING EDUCATOR Erin Gruwell, in the Freeport High School Auditorium speaking at the WCSD EPIC2 Event to inspire Walton county teachers for the upcoming school year.

“Each of those kids were looking at this tough little girl who wasn’t so tough anymore. In that moment of being exposed and being vulnerable — she who had lost her innocence was innocent again. And every one of my kids picked up a plastic champagne glass and they dared to dream. They were tired. They were tired of being poor. They were tired of being picked on…They dared to dream that life could be better. That things could be different. There was a part of me that panicked. I’m not a counselor. I’m not a therapist…How am I going to get these kids to change? But if I can’t, maybe my girl Anne Frank can.” By the end of Gruwell’s presentation, half of the educators in the audience had tears in their eyes.

THE FREEPORT HIGH SCHOOL auditorium was filled the brim with Walton county teachers who came to participate in the EPIC2 event on August 3.

All 150 Freedom Writers graduated in 1998. Many have gone on to pursue higher education and lucrative careers. The Freedom Writers Foundation was created shortly after to help other educators mirror Erin and the Freedom Writers’ accomplishments and ensure a quality education for all students.