In the fall of 1994, first-year teacher Erin Gruwell began her career at Wilson High School in Long Beach, California. The school had a diverse student body; "rich kids from the shore sit next to poor kids from the projects."
Gruwell's call to arms was issued during her year of student-teaching when one of her students drew a stereotypical, racist cartoon of one of her students which was passed around the class. She tabled her lesson plans for the day and seized the teachable moment. When she took her class to see Schindler's List at a theater in an upper-class, white neighborhood, she was disheartened to see women, fear on their faces, grabbing their purses. When a local newspaper caught wind of the reaction Gruwell and her students received, they published a front-page article that ultimately resulted in death threats against Gruwell. When her professors at UC-Irvine saw the article, they invited Gruwell and her students to a seminar presented by Thomas Keneally, author ofSchindler's List. Keneally was so impressed by Gruwell's class that several days later, the motley crew was invited to Universal Studios for a meeting with Steven Spielberg, who had produced the film. After these once-in-a-lifetime opportunities, Gruwell was summoned to the English department chair's office where she was told that she was making the rest of the teachers look bad. Her request to loop with her students and follow them into their senior year was denied and she was given the "at risk" freshman class. The story of Gruwell and her students continues from this point and is told from a variety of perspectives through Gruwell's and students' diary entries.
Gruwell's new class takes one look at her and is convinced that they will eat her alive, just as they have done with every other teacher they have ever had. The first entry says, "'These kids are going to make this lady quit the first week,' my friends were saying. Someone else said, 'She'll only last a day.' I give her a month."
In subsequent anonymous journal entries, the students talk unflinchingly about their experiences with probation officers, gang affiliations, substance use, violence, and racism. A student reflects on going to the funeral of one of his friends: "everyone was talking about 'the young boy' who had been taken away by the paramedics, but there was a lot they didn't know. They didn't know that he was my friend and that he had his whole life ahead of him." Another student reflects on his or her neighborhood: "during the day racial tensions rule the streets, at night gunshots are heard from drive-by shootings, and twenty-four hours a day, the gangs and drug dealers control the block." A dyslexic student recounts his struggles with school and how Gruwell gave him the courage to approach his academics with confidence and to pursue his true passion, sports.
Gruwell reached her students in many ways, but perhaps most effective was introducing them to literature that was relevant and relatable. She begins with Durango Street, the story of a juvenile delinquent who lives in the projects while he searches for his biological father. Then, in an effort to appeal to her students' creativity, Gruwell led the class in a filmmaking project that brought the story to life. She even takes a group of students to see Hoop Dreams. She hopes that by winning their trust and relating to them on their terms that she will be able to convince them that Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet had "a little 'something something' for everyone."
The book is broken up into semesters, allowing readers to see Gruwell's and the students' growth. In the spring of 1995, Gruwell reflects on the inadequacies and frustrations of the education system. She vents about being tested by her students every step of the way and facing opposition from the administration as well.
Gruwell shepherds her class through important events in America's history, such as the Oklahoma City bombing. One student noted, "writing about it made me realize how susceptible we are to violence...There are many Timothy McVeigh's around us every day."
Gruwell takes her class to Los Angeles's Museum of Tolerance for a private viewing of the film Higher Learning, which had just been released. After seeing the film, the class attended a panel discussion that included Mas Okui, author of Farewell to Manzanar. The group listened intently to Okui's description of life in an...
(The entire section is 1852 words.)