Monday, April 29, 2013

The Freedom Writers’ Diary with Erin Gruwell

­Dedication that Makes a Difference (Teacher Appreciation Week)

The Freedom Writers' Diary with Erin Gruwell is a compilation of diary entries of approximately 150 students in a Los Angeles school. Ms Gruwell, a first-year teacher, steps into a world of despair, hatred, and anger and ends up teaching her “at risk” students more than English. Through imagination, enthusiasm, and determination Ms. Gruwell begins an education of tolerance and acceptance in a world where high school students carry guns for protection, where racism and hatred is deep and suffocating.  She exposes the kids to the atrocious intolerance of the Holocaust and the Bosnian War with books like Night by Elie Wiesel, Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl, and Zlata’s Diary: A Child’s Life in Sarajevo.  Through these books their eyes and minds are opened.  Like Anne and Zlata, Ms Gruwell assigns the students to write their own diaries.  This book is the result of four years worth of selected diary entries that takes the reader through the mindsets of the students and Ms. Gruwell as they all journey from disparate strangers to a “family.”

I saw the “Freedom Writers” movie years ago when it first came out and thought it was inspiring.  Anyway you look at it, Ms Gruwell is amazing.  This teacher put everything she had into making a difference. She worked tirelessly as a teacher, then worked another job to take students on field trips or bring key speakers right to their classrooms. The movie, however, only focused on a few of the students, whereas the book gives us a glimpse into so many more students’ lives—lives I cannot imagine.  Each person has a story to tell whether it’s about abuse, hunger, shootings, being overweight, or having cystic fibrosis. Most live in a war zone; an undeclared war that tear their lives apart. Drugs and violence are prevalent.

Though the conditions and situations the students live with are depressing, the book is uplifting.  It’s a lesson for all to overcome adversity and plow forward, to educate ourselves and move in a positive direction. If these kids can block out the negativity of the surrounding world and focus on accepting others for who they are while concentrating on their future in a positive way, even striving to go to college, then we, who don’t have such obstacles, should be able to soar.

“They say America is the “Land of the Free and Home of the Brave,” but what’s so free about a land where people get killed?”
Erin Gruwell and Students of Woodrow Wilson High School, The Freedom Writers’ Diary, (New York: Broadway Books, 1999), 78.

“I have learned that it doesn’t matter if your inspiration in life comes from negative or positive events. The most important thing is to learn and go on.”
Erin Gruwell and Students of Woodrow Wilson High School, The Freedom Writers’ Diary, (New York: Broadway Books, 1999), 264.

Mrs. Marie Vento
Good teachers can make such a difference. I, too, had an amazing teacher once.  Her name was Mrs. Marie Vento.  She was my first grade teacher at Mountain View Elementary School in Las Vegas.  I was in awe of her.  I thought she was so beautiful.  I remember her as tall, thin with dark hair like Elizabeth Taylor used to wear.  She had these dark, warm eyes that exuded a kindness I will never forget.  Mrs. Vento taught me English.  Well, she gave it a good go, anyway.  I moved to the United States (permanently) in the second half of the first grade.  The only English I knew was the dinner table variety we learned shortly before leaving Germany.  Käse= Cheese.  Brot = Bread. Gurke = Pickle (not too appetizing since a Pickel is a pimple in German), but you get the point. It was food talk, not street talk.  Thank goodness for Mrs. Vento. Every day after school, Mrs. Vento would
stay and teach me English.  We read things like “A pig can jig,” a virtual tongue twister back then.  Mrs. Vento didn’t get paid extra for this.  I’m sure she had many better things to do.  She could have been grading school work, or grocery shopping, or even reading a book.  Instead she took time with a shy, little German girl after school and patiently taught me how to read and pronounce those foreign words. 

She did a great job, too.  I can proudly say after four(+) decades I’m reasonably proficient in English now.  In fact, my German has sadly rusted in a corner.  It’s falling apart and I can hardly speak it anymore.  Every once in awhile I’ll try to exercise my brain by translating sentences from English to German in my head.  Even in my head they sound horrible.  I have forgotten so many vocabulary words.  I get things mixed up.  I still have to think twice before saying Fahrstuhl or Rollstuhl.  One means elevator and the other wheelchair. If I’m not careful I’ll say something like “My sister just got a new purple elevator and it is really lightweight.”  

But back to Mrs. Vento. If there’s one teacher who deserves an award, it was her. I’m not sure if she ever knew how much I appreciated that she took her own time to teach me English. I don’t know if she’s alive anymore.  If she is, she must be way up there, since I’m not a spring chicken myself anymore. But if she or her kids are alive, I hope they somehow find to reading this and know how grateful I am. Thank you, Mrs. Vento! You made a difference.  You were a great teacher!

Teacher Appreciation Week starts May 6th.  Is there a teacher that made a difference in your life? Enter a comment or email me at and I will post your answer.

Update 5/22/15:  I just read the most amazing story of Miss Nelson, a teacher who shaved her head for one of her students.  What a touching story. What an incredible woman.  Click below to read. 

Happy reading!


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