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 across the hall, and the only white student in this class believes he should be across the hall.

School is like the city and the city is like...

(The entire section is 1061 words.)