As I said before, things were extremely crazy during our final year in high school. Not only did the Freedom Writers go to New York (many of us who had taken our first trip on a plane or out of California only a few months before) we mentored students, and worked to promote the message of tolerance by speaking to educators, business people and politicians alike.
You see, something magical happened as we went through the process of editing our diaries. Each day we read an anonymous story we knew could have been written by anyone in Gruwell's five classes, and realized that the stories were everyone's. We learned to shed our apathy as we read and critiqued the stories of pain, struggle and occasional joy of our classmates.
Before going through the experience of collectively writing and editing our diaries, most of us felt alone in our struggle. The process was cathartic and we eventually built bonds that to this day will never be broken. We learned that though we may come from different countries, neighborhoods, religious and economic backgrounds, we were more alike than we were different.
Graduation rolled around and the Freedom Writers were determined to continue pursuing, what for many of us were new goals. Off to college and scattered across the country, it became harder to pull everyone together. During the last phases of editing our book, a small group hauled up in a hotel room with Gruwell, uncertain what the future held but knowing something great was on the horizon.
After the book was released, life just took over and I drifted over so slightly away until Gruwell popped up at Long Beach City College (LBCC), which I was attending. She had this crazy idea to do a book tour through Europe, visiting various Holocaust sites and other landmarks we had read about in the books that had originally inspired the Freedom Writers to write our diaries. As always there would be tons of work, including two extra classes, community service, and an essay stating why we wanted to be "Ambassadors for Tolerance."
That semester I must have been crazy. It wasn't enough that I had had my first baby over the summer, I was also working part time, on the swim team at school and when I tacked on the classes Gruwell required to qualify for the Ambassadorship, I was taking six classes for a total of 20 units.
I made it though, and in the summer of 1999 I traveled with Gruwell and about 50 other Freedom Writers to London, Poland, Sarajevo, The Netherlands and a couple other cities in between. We visited Anne Frank's Attic in Amsterdam, attended a trial at the Hague, held a town hall meeting in Bosnia-Herzegovina, and paid homage to both the survivors and victims of the Holocaust at Auschwitz.
We returned home, and the group seemed to dissipate. Again I felt the sting of life's bitterness and strife. I eventually left LBCC after a few semesters, frustrated at the struggles I was facing as a single mother and student. Having moved into my own place, I felt I only had myself to depend on and seemed to sink deeper and deeper into financial and emotional hole. I wondered through life, picking up a job here and there to pay the bills, but none satisfying enough to hold my attention for any length of time. All of life, my goals had been largely connected to going to college and at the time all hope seemed lost; and so was I.
A few years and another child later, I made the decision that no matter the struggle, I was going to finish college if my life depended on it; and in many ways it did. No sooner than I enrolled in the interior design program at Brooks College did I received a call from friend and fellow Freedom Writer informing me that Gruwell was at it again.
This time the classes were at California State University Long Beach (CSULB), and the prize was the possibility of a full scholarship to the university. Since the Freedom Writer's Diary was a collected work, Gruwell had set up a non-profit foundation with the proceeds and finally had the funds to do one of the things she had always wanted. There was no way I could pass up the opportunity but for the first year, I did double duty attending both colleges and taking seven classes.
There was a brief period when those of us who had trusted Gruwell since high school were not sure she would pull off this latest scheme of getting us into the university. We were all at different levels in our education and definately not the typical transfer students. Like many times before though, Gruwell fought hard to keep us together and follow through on what she had said. We designed a completely comprehensive scholarship program, applied to CSULB as a group and were accepted.
The first couple of years were extremely hard; we took classes during the spring, fall, winter, and summer sessions. Gruwell's logic was that the faster we got it done, the faster we could move on with our lives. So she helped by putting us on a very rigorous fast-tracked program, major classes first. The Freedom Writers were a cohort and we took all of our classes together.
Eventually we had gone as far as we could as a cohort at the university and we broke to complete and customize our degrees. This time there was nofloundering or uncertainly, it was full speed ahead and while we did not all graduate at the same time, in many ways our successes are inextricably tied to the inspiration from Gruwell who believed, and taught us to believe in ourselves against all odds.
Well here I am, a college graduate and the first in my family to do so. My work now includes what I love, reading, writing, research and most importantly flexibility. But the story of the Freedom Writers continues...and you will never believe what happened next.