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The Write to Freedom

Erin Gruwell, the teacher and UC Irvine alumna whose story is portrayed in the movie “Freedom Writers,” gave a motivational speech about teaching and overcoming adversity at theStudentCenter’s Crystal Cove Auditorium on Wednesday, May 16.

After an introduction given byUCIstudent and Resident Advisor Natasha Zubair, Gruwell was welcomed to the stage and opened her talk with background about how she entered the world of teaching. As aNewport Beachnative, Gruwell grew up in the area with plans and aspirations to go to law school. However, after turning on the television one day to see a boy protesting and standing in front of a tank inTiananmen SquareinBeijing,   Gruwell was inspired by his activism and wanted to do something other than law school.

“I watched this young college student in the center ofTiananmen Square, standing up for something that was so much bigger than himself, whether it was democracy, freedom or the right to get an education,” Gruwell said.

“Watching that, I realized, maybe I want to stand up for something. Maybe it’s not in a courtroom. Maybe it’s not in front of a jury. Maybe it’s not in front of a judge. But maybe I can stand up for kids — kids who don’t have the ability to stand in front of those tanks.”

With that, Gruwell realized that she wanted to be a teacher and help children in inner-city schools. She wanted to give hope to those that had been told they wouldn’t be able to succeed. Gruwell’s father did not take the news of this sudden career-shift very well and reminded her that she wouldn’t make very much money as a teacher, but she persevered anyway and pursued a career in this profession.

Gruwell began teaching English classes to high school freshmen at WoodrowWilsonClassicalHigh Schoolin Long Beach, Calif. in 1994. She was not well-received at first, as the students had been through difficult experiences such as the LA Riots and other gang-related events, and felt as though Gruwell would not be able to understand or relate. Aside from that, the majority of her students were not entirely focused on school — it did not rank especially high on their list of priorities after everything else they had encountered.

“Most of my kids could care less about Shakespeare wearing his tights, or Homer wearing his toga, from countries they couldn’t even identify on a map,” Gruwell said.

“Because most of my kids wondered, ‘What happens at3:00when that bell rings and I’m back on the street? When I’m looking over my shoulder, and going through life feeling like I have a bull’s-eye on my chest?’ Because most of my students felt like another helpless statistic and as if it was just a matter of time.”

Although it took a bit of time to get past the barriers that existed between her and her students, Gruwell eventually found a way to connect with them through writing and reading.

After assigning “The Diary of Anne Frank” in her English class, the students began to learn about the Holocaust and found a way to relate to the girl’s diary. This inspired the students to write their own stories in diary-form and the book “The Freedom Writers Diary” was published.

At the end of recounting her inspirational story and elaborating on different aspects from “The Freedom Writers” movie, Gruwell opened up the event for a question and answer session.

Gruwell was asked various questions about how the movie related to her actual life, and was also asked to give advice on how to pursue a career in education. The last question was asked by a student who wondered how he and other people could be a catalyst for change, and Gruwell responded with a call-to-action.

“This is my challenge for you — this is your homework assignment. Stand up for something. Stand up for things that you believe in, stand up for equality and civil rights,” Gruwell said.

“It’s going to be a fight. There are a lot of people who don’t believe in equality. So it is up to you to do something — don’t stand idly by.”