WESTMORELAND — “Family is what we make, and family is what we choose.”
And a family is what they became back in 1994, and still are today.
Twenty-five years since her first year of teaching at Woodrow Wilson Classical High School in Long Beach, Calif., and Erin Gruwell and her Freedom Writers continue to spread the message of “hope and resilience” together.
For about the eighth consecutive year, Gruwell has come to visit Westmoreland Central School as she did on April 24, bringing with her one of her original Freedom Writers Tony Becerra. After spending the day meeting with elementary and middle school students, Gruwell and Becerra presented the new 56-minute PBS documentary to students and members of the public about her group of at-risk students who evolved into “ambassadors” for change.
“Erin kind of adopted us,” joked Superintendent Rocco J. Migliori at the introductory of the evening presentation. “Some people may ask why we bring in the same speaker all the time and it’s because her message of hope and resilience, and rising up from adversity, never gets old.”
Whether described as that “light in a bottle,” or the “phoenix rising from the ashes,” the story of the Freedom Writers not only lives on, it continues to impact and touch lives, perhaps giving a glimpse of hope to those who have battled similar, if not the same exact challenges and circumstances.
Gruwell mentioned that in two days she’d be flying to Manhattan to meet with the original publishers of her and her students’ book, “The Freedom Writers Diary,” after submitting the 20th anniversary edition.
“I call it the little book that could” just like the Little Engine That Could, Gruwell laughed, adding that just about every publishing house “turned us down” originally. But the book was eventually picked up by Penguin Random House.
The documentary that traces the origins of her students’ story seemed to have been worked on “for the better part of forever,” Gruwell joked, adding that they chose PBS to get their story “out into the world” to capture a wider audience.
“Maybe Netflix would’ve been sexier, but not every kid has access to it; maybe (the story could have gone to) the big screen, but not every kid can afford to go buy popcorn and a movie ticket, and not every kid comes from a family that can afford cable,” Gruwell said. “We wanted kids out there, somewhere, to stumble on this story and for it to be that big light into a dark room.”
“Freedom Writers: Stories from an Undeclared War” begins in that “dark place,” as it tells and shows the story of those 150 “unteachable” teens Gruwell taught in Room 203 at Woodrow Wilson High School who faced fighting violence, racism, poverty, gangs and dysfunctional family lives each and every day. In an effort to reach out to her students and find a common ground, Gruwell, an English teacher, had her students start writing in journals each day.
Like a time capsule, the documentary shows interviews with the then teen-age Becerra, who is now 38-years-old, and other students as they describe their broken homes and how school was, for the most part, simply a place “just to get a meal” when they were hungry.
“There’s nothing at home for me.”
As students learned to express their emotions and struggles through their journal writing, they not only found strength in the vulnerability of sharing their stories, they discovered that despite who they were or where they came from, they really weren’t all that different.
They also found unity in the stories they read for class like, “The Diary of Anne Frank” and Gary Soto’s “Jesse,” realizing that others had similar stories and shared their own fears and dreams. Becerra admitted that as a teen, reading for class was “work,” but Gruwell taught him and his classmates that reading was “enjoyable” and an important influence in their lives.
Described as one of the jokesters of the class, Becerra explained that even today he appreciates the “power of laughter” and tries to instill that in youths he speaks to while touring with Gruwell. During a question-and-answer session following the showing of the film, Becerra shared that he suffers from depression and that it’s still difficult seeing his own story on screen, but he wants kids out there going through the same thing to know they’re not alone.
“A lot of kids are going through the same things,” he said. “...But you can’t think of bad things all the time because then those will be the only things that you remember. So if you can make a person laugh or at least smile, that can turn your whole day around.”
Seeing his life as a kid be told “Is still hard,” Becerra said. “Those are a lot of deep moments. (Growing up) my dad was an alcoholic and my mother was always working. My mother would say, ‘Don’t tell your teacher or white people that you’re by yourself all day,’ and back then I didn’t understand why. I tried to hide the way I grew up for so long, and now I’m super candid about it. But if I can make a kid’s day better by sharing my story, then it’s well worth it.”
As a kid, “I didn’t think school was for me,” he said. “And I tried to hide what I was feeling. Most of the time I was just hungry and mad.”
But Becerra also enjoys looking back and seeing how he and his classmates were able to grow, simply by reading books. Then and even today, he’s learned to appreciate the “power” of the written word and how it can change lives. Becerra recalled an opportunity where he met Soto and was even asked by the author and poet to sign his copy of “The Freedom Writers Diary.”
“It’s hard to talk about your life — you’re still human — you never stop feeling,” Becerra said, adding that he keeps letters from the kids he’s helped or visited. “But if I am able to get to kids and they’re able to say, ‘Wow, he went through the same things I did and he’s a good person, so it’s going to be OK and one day it will be all right,’” that’s priceless.
In the documentary, Freedom Writers were able to invite Zlata Filipović to come speak to their group. Filipovic kept a diary from 1991 to 1993 when she was a child living in Sarajevo during the Bosnian war. And it was also by visiting former war-torn countries and places like the former Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland where Anne Frank died that instilled a lesson of unity for the students.
“I didn’t know what to expect being in a different country on a different continent,” Becerra reflected, recalling Freedom Writers’ visit to Bosnia-Herzegovina. “(We) already felt gang violence was an undeclared war, but this was a real war. I was expecting the people to be totally different from me, and they may have talked differently, but they all lost something through meaningless violence. They were all trying to recover and heal. That showed me that we’re all human, and we’re all similar.”
A student from the audience asked Becerra if as a teen he ever thought about running away from home. The Freedom Writer admitted he did at one time or another, but now that he was “out of the storm,” he appreciates how standing up against adversity helped shape the person he is today. He said he also appreciates that he and his parents have “gotten to a good place.”
“Whatever doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger,” Becerra said. “And this too shall pass.”
A local college student, who aspired to be a math or science teacher, asked Gruwell how he could become a better educator.
“Just believe in your kids and see something in them,” she advised. “It’s about being relevant and being real.”
Gruwell and Becerra’s visit was sponsored by Utica National Insurance.