How one teacher changed her students’ lives forever

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Teo Chuen Tick reflects on a film about a teacher who inspires her students to new heights by encouraging them to re-write the stories of their lives.

“To teach is to touch a life forever” is the phrase on a fridge magnet given to me by a respected friend, a teacher in his own right, even if he’s not involved in formal education.

Freedom Writers, screened over HBO, is a screenplay adaptation of teacher Erin Gruwell’s inspirational work in changing the lives of her racially diverse class of students at the Woodrow Wilson High School in Long Beach, California. It was a racially disparate class that other teachers had labelled as hopeless. Long Beach, where Wilson High School was located, had more than a hundred murders in 1993.

This film is a salute to all teachers. We may not all be Erin Gruwell, but as long as we are doing our best to educate those wards in our charge, we can hold our heads high.

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Erin started at Wilson High as a student teacher and was not paid. As a student teacher, Erin still had to pay tuition to the California State University in Long Beach.

She initially took two part-time jobs to help pay the semester’s tuition. As depicted in the film, she worked part-time at a Nordstrom department store in the lingerie section and at Marriot Hotel as a concierge.

She used some of this money to buy her students books, including copies of Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl.

It is not that the school did not have copies of Anne Frank. Something akin to our textbook loan scheme was in place, but the head of department refused to release that book to her class.

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The head of department felt that her non-honours class was not of the quality to use that as reading material for that semester and would only end up damaging those books – so she would rather have them sit pretty in the store.

But Erin refused to accept that rejection as final. She approached the principal and got his approval to use the book if she could fund the purchase of the books herself. In my experience, I had heard and known of teachers who provided financial help to their students apart from emotional and moral support. Here’s a salute to such teachers everywhere.

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The woman who hid Anne Frank, Miep Gies, came to speak to Erin’s students after they raised enough money to fly her from Amsterdam.

Miep was 87 when she came to speak at Woodrow Wilson High School in Long Beach, California, during the 1994/1995 school year.

“People sometimes call me a hero,” says Gies. “I don’t like it .. I myself, I’m just a very common person. I simply had no choice. I could not save Anne’s life.”

It is inspiring how Erin changed the dry words in the book Anne Frank into activities that moved her students. They wrote letters to Miep Gies as part of their work assignment; it was the suggestion of one of their own students that they bring Miep Gies to speak to them in their school.

It is a credit to Erin’s creativity that she did not reject the idea as outrageous but instead work together with the students to realise that project. So, here’s a salute to creative and resourceful teachers everywhere.

Miep Gies words in the movie still reverbrates in my mind. She told the students she was no hero: but that every one of them, each in their own way, had to stand firm in doing what was right. Yes, that we can do, that we must do. We must not submit to the atmosphere of fear and just do nothing; neither should we be complicit in the committing of evil through our silence.

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Every one of Erin’s 150 students graduated from high school and most went on to college. Many of them were able to obtain scholarships to help get themselves through school. Some used their profits from The Freedom Writers Diary book sales to help pay for college. After college, they entered various professions, including the education system.

Today, they are all part of The Freedom Writers Foundation. Several of them have travelled around the country speaking about their story. As a result of their dedication to the Foundation, some of them even work like Erin does to help train the teachers.

What better tribute to Erin’s success as a teacher than what her students have achieved. Those of us in the education service long enough can look back in pride at those students who were with us and have now made it good in the world.

No, my criteria of good is not success in the material world, but as long as our students turn out to be good citizens of our country, contributing to peace and harmony [tedious as it is, at the moment] of our nation, then we have every reason to be proud.

As teachers, we find our hearts swelling with pride if those students remember our contribution and drop us a card or pay us a visit. So, this is a tribute to all students who remember and give due recognition to the teachers who had been instrumental in their success.

Notes

Erin also wrote to Zlata Filipovic, a Sarajevo girl who published diaries that dealt with the war in her homeland from September 1991 to October 1993. Erin and her students persuaded Zlata to visit them at Woodrow Wilson High School. This is what prompted Erin to encourage the kids to write their own diaries, which were eventually compiled into the book The Freedom Writers Diary.

Zlata Filipovic has been described as the new Anne Frank. When Zlata was eleven, she lived through constant bombings and sniper-fire, not to mention severe food and water shortages. Like Anne Frank, Zlata spent her days cooped up in a room (of an apartment), often never seeing daylight. Her book is titled Zlata’s Diary: A Child’s Life in Wartime Sarajevo.

The Freedom Writers Diary is a compilation of the original diary entries written by Gruwell’s students.
The name is a pun on the term ‘freedom rider’, the title given to the mostly African American and white college students, who in 1961 rode interstate buses into the segregated southern United States to test newly formed civil rights laws. These new laws outlawed racial segregation in interstate transport facilities, including bus stations and railway terminals.

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Erin’s husband Scott, felt neglected, as Erin Gruwell grew more devoted to her teaching. Eventually, the two divorced with Scott telling her, “I’m living a life I didn’t agree to.”

This was the only weakness to an otherwise exceptional account of Erin’s life. Yet, it also teaches us something in its own way.

Sometimes couples grow apart; in Erin’s case, it looked as if Scott was not prepared for the sacrifice he needed to make to accommodate her commitment and dedication to her teaching profession. It was a civilised divorce; perhaps the fact that they had no children made the divorce less complicated.

So, perhaps, it may be a good lesson for all teachers if we realise our actions have an impact on not only our students but our immediate families as well.

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“Erin started at Wilson High as a student teacher and was not paid. As a student teacher, Erin still had to pay tuition to the California State University in Long Beach. ”

Malaysian student teachers who do not hold government scholarships are also not paid during their compulsory teaching practice. At the same time, the non-sponsored trainee teachers have to pay college tuition. Moreover, they are sent to practice in faraway schools where they have to rent rooms.