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Inspiration for ‘Freedom Writers’ speaks at College

Kiera Johnsen | Monday, November 18, 2013

Erin Gruwell, author of “The Freedom Writers Diary” and founder of the Freedom Writers Foundation, spoke on encouraging diversity and understanding in a lecture titled “Teaching Tolerance” in Moreau Hall’s Little Theater on Friday.

Penn High School sophomore Katie Laiman approached Saint Mary’s with the idea to invite Gruwell to speak as a part of Girls Scout Gold Award project.

“I think this talk was really impactful, and I hope everyone that was here takes a lot from it,” Laiman said.

Gruwell said she became a teacher because she wanted to stand up for kids who did not have a voice.

“Before there was a book, before there was a movie, there was a group of students who were tired of being invisible, tired of being on the fringe and just wanted to matter, just wanted to be heard,” she said.

Gruwell said when she was in graduate education classes she noticed a disconnection between theory and practice.

“I realized this when I walked into my first classroom and my students could care not less about stories, and books, and Shakespeare and tales about Homer,” she said.

“My students cared about would I make it home alive, am I gonna get home and see my hardworking mom with those cockroaches and those rats in that tiny one bedroom housing project, and will there be dinner, would their be food on the table, are those cupboards going to be bare again.”

Gruwell said all of her students buried friends due to senseless gang violence by the age of 14, and it made her desperate to show them stories written about teenagers such as Anne Frank.

“At that moment I wanted to find books written by, for and about kids,” she said. “Kids who lived in real wars, kids who didn’t pick up Molotov cocktails or spray cans or use 38 special handguns, kids who picked up a pen and tried to write along, kids who picked up a pen and tried to write their own ending.”

Gruwell said she went to her English department chair to ask if she could use these books but was turned down.

“She said my kids were too stupid to read a book, and they would never read a book from cover to cover,” Gruwell said. “She went on to say they were dumb; she went on to say they were nothing. I realized my kids have been called dumb, stupid and nothing so often by so many people they believed it, and they were acting accordingly.”

Gruwell said in order to convince her students to pick up a book instead of using cliff notes or downloading someone else’s essay off the Internet, she had them wipe the slate clean and start over.

“Without really thinking it through, I decided we were going to have a toast for change,” she said. “Maybe for the first time it doesn’t matter, maybe we can wipe the slate clean, maybe we can start over. I wanted to start over because I wanted my students to know they had a voice. I wanted them to know they were brilliant and they could go anywhere and do anything.”

Gruwell said over the years she has watched these 150 kids, who were not supposed to make it, become teachers, parents and leaders.

“I watched each and every one of those kids become the first in their families to graduate,” she said. “I watched each and every one of those kids become the first in their family to go to college. … I watched those kids realize their dreams.”

Gruwell said she has watched kids build mountains and has seen their book inspire others.

“I am an ordinary teacher who had an extraordinary experience with a group of kids who were tired of reading books written by dead white guys in tights,” she said. “They wanted kids like you to see their story, they wanted kids like you to identify with their story, but most importantly, they wanted kids like you to write your own.”

The lecture was cosponsored by the Saint Mary’s Education Club, CWIL, OCSE, SIMS, Student Government Association and Girls Scouts of Northern Indiana Michiania.


Contact Kiera Johnsen at kjohns02@saintmarys.edu.