“Most of you set the curve in school, go off and do great things. These kids are 14, and they don’t know where they’re going to get their next meal.”
These were the words spoken at the Dean of Students Winter Leadership Conference in January by Erin Gruwell, a UC Irvine alumna who has become famous throughout the realm of education. She graduated from UCI in the early 1990s with a degree in English and, following graduation, obtained her teaching credential from California State University, Long Beach. She began teaching at Wilson High School in Long Beach in 1994, and her trials and tribulations in the classroom later became the inspiration for the movie “Freedom Writers,” starring Hilary Swank as Gruwell.
At the conference, Gruwell spoke about the students she met in Long Beach. She worked with 150 young people who hated reading and writing – and hated her even more. She describes herself as “the cheerleader from hell,” and she didn’t have the answers to teenagers who had become desensitized to drive-by shootings and whose only care was survival.
She had students like Darrius, who had been to more funerals than birthdays and who had buried 25 of his friends. Gruwell recounted how, at the start of the new school year, Darrius’s mother gave him the last $25 she had for school supplies. On his way to the store, Darrius got derailed and met a friend in Martin Luther King Park. In the blink of an eye, Darrius’s whole life changed. His friend, wanting to play Russian Roulette, took out a gun, placed a gun to his head and blew out his brains. Darrius felt like he was watching a movie in his head, he couldn’t pause or stop – even if he scrubs himself today, he can still feel the remnants of his friend on him.
Gruwell also spoke about another student, Maria, and her entry into gang life. When Maria was five, she was excited to be entering kindergarten and was waiting at the bus stop. She was going off to live the American Dream – the dream that her parents had never been able to actualize. That day at the bus stop, Maria saw her cousin. She didn’t see the baggy pants or the white tank top of a gang member, she saw a role model. And as she went to greet him, her cousin was shot five times in the back. She waited for him to pop right back up, but he stayed lying on the ground. In school, Maria noticed that she was different; she spoke Spanglish and people laughed. The woman who laughed at her the most was her teacher and, at five years old, Maria gave up on her teacher and on school. For the following years of her life, she lived in and out of jail cells.
These were the students Gruwell encountered as a novice teacher in Room 203. Gruwell grew up wanting to be like her father, who was a civil rights activist in the 1960s. She had originally intended to be a lawyer but historical moments in college, such as the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989 and the Los Angeles riots of 1992, convinced her to shift her career focus.
“Something transformed in me that would change my life. Students stood up for democracy,” Gruwell said. “I was living in a Technicolor world, I just wanted to go to school and do something bigger. I wanted to roll up my sleeves and fight the good fight. I didn’t want to be a lawyer in the courtroom, I wanted to be a teacher.”
Gruwell’s activities on campus also inspired her to become involved in education, and she says that she’s never forgotten her roots as an Anteater. She was a peer advisor for the humanities, a participant in intramural sports and a member of student government. One influential experience she had was working as one of the coordinators for the Student Parent Orientation Program (SPOP).
“My first exposure to SPOP triggered something, that I too could be a leader,” Gruwell said. “As a coordinator, it was amazing to see 150 students become a family. We were a collective voice, we came together in harmony and shattered not fears but shattered stereotypes,” Gruwell said.
In closing remarks to the students attending the conference, Gruwell encouraged students to be a friend to those in need. Having heard the stories of her own students in Long Beach, she encouraged them to write in journals and document their experiences. The culmination of this writing project was the publication of their stories, which gave a voice to students who had been given a second glance in their first years of schooling. Gruwell states that the students came to feel like they belonged and that life mattered.
“Listening to someone matters, be there, be humble and be gracious,” Gruwell said. “Dare to dream, to dream big.”