Published by Broadway in 1999, The Freedom Writers Diary chronicles the true story of English teacher Erin Gruwell and her first teaching assignment in Long Beach, California, working with students other teachers deemed "unteachable." Gruwell quickly learned that her students had more to worry about than homework; her students went home to gunfire, gangs, drugs, and a host of other difficult situations. The students were convinced that they had nothing to learn from a white woman who had never experienced firsthand the violence, discrimination, and hatred that was part of their everyday lives.
One day, Gruwell intercepted a note being passed between students; the paper revealed a racist caricature full of hate. Gruwell told her class that it was this sort of hate and misunderstanding that led to the Holocaust. Gruwell was shocked to learn that her students had never heard of the Holocaust.
Gruwell introduced her class to Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl and to Zlata's Diary: A Child's Life in Sarajevo. She also provided every student with a journal in order for them to have a place to discuss their feelings, their fears, and their experiences. For the first time, the students took an interest in academics.
To bring this history to life, the students organized a "Read-a-Thon for Tolerance" to raise money to bring Miep Gies, the woman whose family hid Anne Frank, to their school. They were also visited by Zlata Filipovic. The group went on to receive tremendous recognition from the media and from the government, hoping that others would find inspiration in their story of success. Perhaps the pinnacle of their success was winning the Spirit of Anne Frank Award in 1998. The group traveled to New York to receive their award. In 1999, the group traveled to Europe together where they visited the Anne Frank House and various concentration camps.
It is nothing less than a miracle that all 150 of the Freedom Writers graduated from high school and went on to college. It is likely that none of their achievements would have been possible without Gruwell's fierce determination and perseverance.
In 2007, Paramount Pictures released The Freedom Writers starring Academy Award winner Hilary Swank as Erin Gruwell.
Section 1 Summary
Freshman Year: Fall 1994
Today is the first day of the first year of Erin Gruwell’s teaching career. Her classroom is in Wilson High School in Long Beach City, and it is nothing like the gated community where she was raised. She did her student teaching here last year, and the racial tensions did not take long to surface. When students circulated a cruel caricature of a black student’s lips, Ms. Gruwell (Ms. G, to her students) was appalled and told them this was the kind of propaganda the Nazis used during the Holocaust. After a few moments of silence, someone finally asked what the Holocaust was. Taken aback, the teacher asked how many students in the class have been shot at, and nearly every hand was raised. That was the moment when she changed her entire curriculum to the study of tolerance. She used new books, went on field trips, and invited guest speakers—all of which required money the school district did not have. To fund her ideas, Ms. Gruwell had to get two night jobs.
The first class field trip to see Schindler’s List in a predominantly white neighborhood was a disaster; the outrageously prejudiced reaction was written about in the newspaper and Ms. G received death threats. A University of California-Irvine professor saw the article and invited the class to a seminar with the author of Schindler’s List; in turn, he was so impressed that he arranged a meeting for them with Steven Spielberg. The head of the English department chides her, however, for making her colleagues look bad since her underachieving students were beginning to achieve. When she becomes a full-time teacher, she is demoted to having four sections of “at-risk” students.
Most of her students think the new teacher is “odd” because she does not believe what everyone else seems to know about these classes; they can read and they can write, and Ms. G expects them to do both. Everyone else seems to think they are stupid and beyond hope. They think this new teacher is “too young and too white to be working here,” and most of the kids in class predict she will leave after a day; one student gives her a month. The class is out of control, and there are more students than desks. The entire school is divided into groups ranging from “Beverly Hills” and “Da Ghetto” to “China Town” and "Run to the Border.” The Distinguished Scholars are in class...
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Section 2 Summary
Freshman Year: Spring 1995
Ms. Gruwell is frustrated with students who do not want to read, write, or do homework. She is even more frustrated with a system that labels students "remedial," "stupid," or "basic." She is then surprised that students believe the label. Even their parents seem to have given up on them. In fact, they may not be “smart” in the conventional sense, but they are quite savvy. Ms. G is preparing to teach Shakespeare to her class of particularly difficult freshmen. To do that, she will have to get “down and dirty,” proving to them she is not a stereotypical Beverly Hills girl. She has to make them see that Shakespeare has modern applications, so she plans to compare the Montagues and Capulets in Romeo and Juliet to modern-day rival gangs. If all goes well this semester, she will take them to another film. John Tu, a self-made millionaire, heard about their last experience at a movie showing and has offered to support them.
Just as the students are giving up on the complexities of Shakespeare, Ms. G asks if the class thinks the feud is stupid—and the quick answer is yes. Upon reflection, one student sees that it is no different than today’s gang warfare. No one knows how the rivalries started, and they only continue because of tradition and habit.
One girl in class thinks of her own running away with a boy, just as Juliet wanted to do with Romeo. Juliet woke up next to a dead Romeo; this girl got caught before anything so dire happened. Her parents beat her and dragged her home, forbidding her to see her boyfriend until she turned fifteen. By that time, their “love” wore off, and she is now glad she was not as desperate for love as Juliet. Shakespeare is relevant to them, they discover.
When Ms. G asks her class to describe a peanut, inside and out, one student reflects that the outside shell is not much to look at but the peanut inside is a wonderful thing. She is an overweight girl, and she wishes the other girls on the bus would see her that way. Instead, they beat her up and spit in her face. Another student thinks it is foolish to care about what a peanut looks like and then has an epiphany. He wonders why the world cares so little about what a peanut looks like but is obsessed with labeling other people simply by how they look.
The class goes to a...
(The entire section is 613 words.)
Section 3 Summary
Sophomore Year: Fall 1995
Even as a student teacher, Ms. Gruwell was the target of jealous, envious teachers in her building; things do not improve now that she is a full-time staff member at Wilson High. Some call her a “hotshot” and do and say cruel things to her. It gets bad enough that she accepts a teaching position at another school, and she tells her principal she is leaving because “all” her colleagues are “out to get” her. But he reminds her that she does have some support in the building. One important thing Erin Gruwell has tried to teach her students is not to let the actions of a few determine how one feels about an entire group, and now she is doing just that. Ms. Gruwell decides to stay.
This year she will have the majority of her students from last year plus a new group of at-risk freshmen. She has ordered new books for the year, including Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl and Zlata’s Diary: A Child’s Life in Sarajevo. She is most excited about the latter, for it is current and written about a war which is similar to the street wars her students live through every day. Soldiers in Zlata’s war in Bosnia made black marks on each person: a “C” for Croats, an “M” for Muslims, and more. Her students are marked by their natural colors as Asians, Latinos, and Blacks. She is hopeful her students will be surprised at how much “life mirrors art.”
The school year starts differently for each student. One wakes up sad because she is no longer living in her own home after she and her mother were evicted. Though she is living with a friend of her pastor’s, she still feels homeless and without hope. But when she walks into her first class of the day, Ms. Gruwell’s English class, her problems fade and she feels at home. Another student is unable to be there on the first day of school because he is sick and waiting for a lung transplant. He is disappointed because school is one of the only things he loves.
One student enters the classroom and is immediately afraid. He has never had Ms. Gruwell as a teacher. All the desks are pressed up against the wall, and everyone else seems to know one another. This student hopes to remain anonymous and not have to speak in front of the class, one of his worst fears. This teacher calls on people, talks with them, and he wishes Ms. Gruwell would be like the other teachers and just “talk...
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Section 4 Summary
Sophomore Year: Spring 1996
The students’ letters to Zlata point out to her the similarities of their two worlds (dodging gunfire, friends getting killed), despite the fact that in America there is no war, at least no declared war. Ms. Gruwell is so impressed with her students’ voracious reading and their compelling letters that she types them and binds them in a book. It is a tragedy that these young people feel as if they are living in a war zone. Though she does not know if it is even possible for Zlata to come, Ms. Gruwell does know Zlata must read her students’ letters and she begins to do her part. The letters are sent, and Ms. Gruwell calls in all her concierge favors (from her night job at the Marriott) to cover what she can of the expenses for such a visit.
While waiting for a response from Zlata, Ms. Gruwell learns that Miep Geis, the woman who discovered Anne Frank’s diary, is coming to California to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the famous diary. Ms. Gruwell meets with the director of the event and arranges for Miep to come and meet her students. She prepares them for the visit and hopes they will understand how lost and persecuted the young girl must have felt. Many do; for they, too, are unable to go outside, trapped in their own homes by the gangs which patrol their streets.
Before Miep arrives, students make welcome signs for her, and afterwards they are able to hug her and have her sign their books. She tells the students that they are her heroes. Ms. Gruwell had told them before that they have enough passion to change the world, that if they will allow themselves to become fire or lightning or thunder; however, they did not really understand what she meant. After listening to Miep, they understand that they are to carry on the message of tolerance; and they begin to be those powerful elements Ms. G wanted them to become.
On March 26, 1996, Zlata and her best friend Mirna come to California for four days. When Zlata speaks about intolerance and persecution based on how people look, what they believe, or their nationality, the students make the connection to their own lives. Someone else in the audience asks her what nationality she is, and Zlata says she is human being. That is what Ms. G’s students will say from now on as well. They will fight the labels society wants to place on them and others.
One student, though,...
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Section 5 Summary
Junior Year: Fall 1996
School starts tomorrow and Ms. Gruwell is just now leaving France for America; she will no doubt be exhausted tomorrow. She taught several summer classes at National University so she could afford this trip to visit Miep and Zlata, among other things. She brought them gifts from her students, and is bringing back many keepsakes and materials from her trip to show her students. These tokens are part of her plan to bring world literature to life, but this year she must do the same with American literature. Erin Gruwell knows last year will be a difficult year to beat.
One new student in Ms. G’s class is particularly thankful to be here. She used to be a kind of spokesperson for blacks in her predominantly white classroom—but not by choice. The English teacher she had is a bigot and refuses to read works by black authors because, he says, it is full of “sex, fornication, drugs, and cussing.” Now, in Ms. G’s class, this student has the freedom to be a spokesperson for herself.
As the class reads Emerson and Thoreau, students think about what it means to be a non-conformist and to be misunderstood. Most of the students in this class are misunderstood as well as underestimated, and they know they must practice non-conformity in order to change things. The idea of self-reliance is more difficult for these students, but one of them learns that she must quit making excuses and take responsibility for her own destiny. Ms. G points out to her that the only obstacles in her life are the ones she allows. The student vows to find her “weakest link” and strengthen it, as she wants to be a self-reliant person, “now and forever.”
Catcher in the Rye is the next novel Ms. Gruwell has her class read. One student has a family history of depression, and believes he may suffer from the affliction as well. Until reading about Holden Caulfeld’s reaction to his friend’s suicide, this student has never thought about the effects or consequences of suicide on those left behind. He had never thought of anything but his “own losing battle.”
Self-made millionaire John Tu is gracious to Ms. Gruwell’s students, even offering one of them a job and a chance to turn his life in a different direction. Another student wishes things were different, that there would not be a double standard about sex between males and females. No one congratulates her...
(The entire section is 683 words.)
Section 6 Summary
Junior Year: Spring 1997
Ms. Gruwell tells Zlata that she is her class’s inspiration and they will be compiling their journal entries into a collaborative book, a diary. Just as writing was Zlata’s salvation during the war, Ms. G’s students will benefit from putting their thoughts on paper. It will help them “escape their horrific environments and personal demons.” For many students, Room 203 is the only place where they feel safe in the midst of the mayhem around them. Some stay as late as seven or eight o’clock, working on homework, because they are afraid to go home. At that time of night, Ms. G feels obligated to take them home, and she has been both scared for her students and guilty for living in Newport Beach, in complete safety.
Every entry in the book is numbered and anonymous, to protect the writers because their fears are legitimate. Each student will sign an honor code, attesting to the truth of each story. Ms. Gruwell feels the weight of responsibility for this project, and she enlists the help of corporate and personal sponsors, including the faithful John Tu. He gives the class thirty-five computers (significantly more than the twenty outdated computers in the school library which are to serve the entire student body). They devise a contract whereby the thirty-five students in the class with the highest GPA will take a computer with them. To motivate and jump-start work on the diary, Ms. G arranges for her students to meet Anne Frank’s best friends.
When Jopie and Lies come to Wilson High School, one of the girls wants to sing a song for them, but she is afraid to even tell anyone she can sing. After hearing about times when these two friends made sacrifices for their childhood friend Anne, she is ashamed that she was not willing to be brave and sing, something for which Anne would have been killed. Bad things can happen when people remain silent, and she vows never to remain silent.
Ms. G’s writing assignment is to create a book of events which have changed the lives of her students. Several students are not excited about the task; for one it is because she would rather forget the pain and keep it locked up, and for another it is because pretending the reality does not exist is easier than facing the truth. For others, the prospect is exciting. The promise of a computer is a motivator; and for a dyslexic student, spell check makes him feel powerful....
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Section 7 Summary
Senior Year: Fall 1997
She had to fight for her class again this year, but Erin Gruwell has found some allies in the administration and she will teach her class as they become seniors. When Secretary Riley told her students that “everyone deserves a college education,” Ms. G takes it as a personal challenge to give each of her students a chance to do so. The idea of college is foreign to most of her students, and she knows she will have to help them through the myriad difficulties which will arise. She will use her graduate college students as mentors for her Freedom Writers, and she has created a nonprofit organization called Tolerance Education Foundation to help them overcome the biggest obstacle—money.
The thought of going to college is daunting to students whose families do not always have enough money to pay their rent. A guest speaker from the projects who survived a horrific ordeal is an encouragement, for if she could survive and go on to graduate from college with honors, so can they.
Not everyone in the class is confident. One student’s family has just been evicted from their home, and he is now considering dropping out of school, taking the GED, and getting a job (or two) to help his family survive. Another is acting as the head of her home after her parents left. Everyone wants money, and she is doing poorly in school. When she can take no more, she confides in Ms. G and her fellow Freedom Writers. They cry with her, hug her, and give her the support she needs to persevere. She even plans to go on a college visit with members of her class. Her dreams are not dead.
All the other students talk about going to college, but one student knows that it will be more difficult for her because she is an illegal immigrant. She came to America for an education and is determined to become a teacher so she can help others like her. One student wants to be a teacher but is afraid that is not a lofty enough goal, and another wants to be a filmmaker but is not sure that will ever happen. In both cases, the rest of the class wholeheartedly supports the goals.
History does repeat itself, but not in every circumstance. For those who will be the first in their families to go to college, a new history will be written. They go on a college visit with Ms. G to National University where they learn about financial aid, college life, and the admissions process. Other students...
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Section 8 Summary
Senior Year: Spring 1998
The Freedom Writers have won the Spirit of Anne Frank Award for their commitment to confront and end discrimination and violence in their community. Unfortunately, they have to go to New York in ten days to accept it. Ms. Gruwell goes to New York and meets with the organization; while she is there, the newspaper reruns the Freedom Writers' story. Upon her return, she finds many messages of support for the group, including offers for television appearances, and plans to see if they will help her students to New York.
A corporate sponsor, GUESS?, is going to send forty-five Freedom Writers to New York. One student finds it odd that a company that does not know her is more interested in what is happening in her life than her father. The brand-name clothing she will be given is nice, but she remembers a time when she thought her clothes and other possessions defined her persona. Now she knows that love is much more important than any material things. That is why every new student who joins Ms. Gruwell’s class is welcomed as part of the family and not seen as an interloper.
The group will spend four days in New York and their room assignments are made by Ms. G, who always uses opportunities like this to teach her students. One girl shares a room with three other girls, each from a different race. She had been taught from a young age that the races are not supposed to mix, so she is hesitant about her room assignment. What she discovers is that color is not something that matters when determining who to be friends with, and she will teach her children differently than she was taught.
After receiving the Spirit of Anne Frank Award, the Freedom Writers watch a production of The Diary of Anne Frank on Broadway. Both are moving experiences. The group meets powerful and famous people, people who are not interested in taking advantage of them as others in their life may have done. One of them is Peter Maass, a journalist who covered the war in Bosnia. One student has always looked to him as a hero, but he asks the reporter how he can watch a war, watch people die, and do nothing. The answer is simple: he feels he cannot upset the balance of the world around him and put others in even more danger, but he can assure that everyone is aware of the tragedies and that the victims have a voice.
Carol is the Freedom Writer’s agent, and she gets them a...
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While they were in Washington, D.C., the Freedom Fighters—all 150 of them—held hands and recited lines from Martin Luther King, Jr.’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech. They walked where he walked, and the experience moved them. After that, one of Ms. Gruwell’s students suggested that since they walked where the Freedom Riders walked, their next stop should be Anne Frank’s attic, the place where their journey began. While many cheered the idea, Ms. G was still trying to ensure that the D.C. trip was a smooth one. So much planning was involved and so many things could go wrong that planning another trip, especially at that moment, seemed like a daunting task. Her strategy was to ignore the request and hope it would go away.
But the idea did not go away, and the day after graduation Ms. G and the Freedom Writers began planning a trip to Europe for the following summer. What started as a simple trip to see an attic became a sweeping tour of Europe. Until then, the students must concentrate on their academic pursuits. As expected, many of them struggled with their academics, managing their social lives, and working their part-time jobs. They no longer had Room 203 to call home.
Some left the comforts of that room and soared quickly; others had more of a struggle. In any case, though, the Freedom Writers made their way, often taking others with them on their journey to achieve and change. Their teacher, too, left the comforts of that room and became a professor at California State University, Long Beach. Her job there was to teach others about the experience of Room 203 so it could be repeated in high schools across the country.
As before, others joined Ms. Gruwell and her Freedom Writers on the journey. Harry Belafonte told them about the preparations the Freedom Riders made before embarking on their journey to the nation’s capital. His words were a motivator for them all to walk the journey as well as they talked it. They continued writing, and when events such as the Columbine shooting in Colorado happened, they were empathetic toward the shooters because they understood what it was like to feel invisible, “alienated and misunderstood,” like the two students who wreaked so much damage.
The lesson of Room 203 is that the ability to express one’s self is the path to freedom, and violence is “never the answer.” After Columbine, the Freedom...
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