In my short years on this earth, I have been blessed to be able to travel the world, become a published author, and participate in a project that could revolutionize the world of education. We all can look back at our lives and identify the few people outside your family who helped to shape who we are today - for better or worse. This is the story of how my life was affected by a teacher who offered me a chance to make a difference in my life and the lives of others.
As I struggled to stay awake in my English class (not from boredom but rather lack of sleep and being over scheduled) I was given an assignment to interview someone whom I admired and write an essay about the individual. Immediately I was dismayed as the person I admired had recently killed herself after having a nervous breakdown.
There was a buzz around campus though, about a teacher who brought education to life and whose class was quickly known for its community service. Searching for something to get involved with, I queried the teacher, Erin Gruwell, if I could interview her.
Little did I know that this little interview assignment for a class would change my life. Gruwell told me the story of a class of students divided but connected in more ways than they knew. Unsure how to reach them, she had her fill of the outrageous shenanigans from the "unteachable" kids in her class when a note was passed around the class depicting one of the students with exaggerated nose and lips.
"The note reminded me of the Nazi propaganda against the Jews during the holocaust but to my horror, none of these kids knew what the Holocaust was!" Gruwell recalled. "So I asked how many of them had been shot at or stabbed and practically every one of them raised their hands or started to show off their war wounds."
It was during this frenzy Gruwell realized what she had to do. Her students did not care about the classics or anything for that matter if it was not relevant to their lives; so she decided that her strategy would be to teach about life.
What does all of this have to do with me? There are moments when you are at a critical stage and whatever decision you make will affect your life forever. For me that moment was when I asked Gruwell what the most important lesson she wanted students to take from her class.
"I want my students to learn how to play the game," said Gruwell. "Life is a game and if you know the rules you can win and ultimately change them. The first rule is that the choice is yours. You are the only person who can choose to make a positive impact on the world, your life and the lives of the people around you."
When she spoke to me about choice, it was as if she knew that I was at a crossroads and I needed to decide if that was what I really wanted my future to look like. At that moment, I made a conscious decision to be a positive force both in my own life and the lives of others...I also asked Gruwell to put me on "the list" of students to be added to her roster for the next year.
The following year, Gruwell told all of the students in her five classes that we would be working on a book project. We were to write anonymously about our lives and somehow we came to a consensus to deliver our stories to the President so he would know that the youth had a voice and after watching the series "Eyes on the Prize" we dubbed ourselves the Freedom Writers after the civil rights activists Freedom Riders. We never met the president but we made our way to Washington D.C. (by some miracle) to deliver our diary entries to the Secretary of Education in 1996.
Gruwell announced that Doubleday was going to publish our book soon after we returned from D.C., so it was back to the drawing board working out the details of compiling and polishing our stories. In the winter of 1998, our senior year in high school, the Freedom Writers were awarded theSpirit of Anne Frank Award by the Anne Frank Center and took another trip, this time to New York to be honored.
Quite honestly the rest is history but this is only the beginning of My life as a Freedom Writer...
Until next time...