I will give you shepherds after my own heart,
who will feed you with knowledge and understanding.
Jesus said to him, “Feed my lambs.”
Director Richard LaGravenese, who wrote what I believe is as perfect a screenplay as I’ve ever seen for Terry Gilliam’s The Fisher King, also adapted this film’s screenplay from the book The Freedom Writer’s Diary. No doubt because I labored in public school classrooms for a year before going to seminary, I have come to love the “caring teacher” film genre. Even though I scorned The Mona Lisa Smile as a rip-off of Dead Poet’s Society, I must admit that I enjoyed the movie and might watch it again if it showed up on television during a slow week (though I’ll never buy it). So, dear reader, you might discount some of my bubbly enthusiasm for Mr. LaGravenese’s film, especially when I say that it is the best teacher film that I have seen since Black Board Jungle (which I watched again a few nights ago and enjoyed despite its simplistic, over the top melodrama—the 1955 film is best known, as you probably know if you are a Beatles fan, because it was the first major film to use a rock song at the beginning and end, Bill Haley’s “Rock Around the Clock.” ) Any way, the newest teacher-versus-rebellious students film is the kind that makes one glad to be alive and able to get out to the movies.
Hilary Swank plays Erin Gruwell, a woman, as in Million Dollar Baby, who will not give up, finally emerging victorious, but only after paying a fearful price. After clips depict the terrible L.A. gang-inspired riots, the story starts with the just-graduated Erin’s first day at a Long Beach, California high school, once a leader in academics, but now, due to enforced integration, facing the problems that come with large numbers of black, Latino, and Cambodian students being bussed in, most of whom see no relevance in education. As Erin expresses to Margaret Campbell (Imelda Staunon), head of the English Department, her hopes of touching the lives of her students, we can see by the expression on the older teacher’s face her belief in the futility of such hopes—Erin as the new teacher has been assigned to teaching the freshman English class. It consists almost entirely of Cambodian, African-American, and Latino students, virtually all of whom are expected to drop out well before their senior year. There is but one “white” student, Ben (Hunter Parrish), hapless at finding that he is now in the minority. Thus, Erin’s first day confronting her cynical class turns out to be one of frustration, disillusionment, and near chaos.
Succeeding days prove to be no different, despite her sincere efforts to reach the class, in response to which one student Eva (April Hernandez) defiantly tells her, “You don’t know us!” Not only does Erin not receive any support from her fellow teachers, but even her father Steve Gruwell (Scott Glenn), once a civil rights activist, believes that she should try to find a position at a better school. At first husband Scott (Patrick Dempsey) is supportive, but as her efforts to reach the students take up more of her time, he draws back, resenting the extra time she is putting in. When Margaret refuses to allow Erin to take out the stack of unused copies of The Diary of Anne Frank because “they” would deface them, as they had their assigned text books, Erin takes on a second job selling bras at a department store so that she can buy the books for the class. As time goes on, she even takes on another job as the night concierge at a hotel.
The classroom incident that had led Erin to want to use Anne Frank’s book was her snatching a cartoonish drawing that was being surreptitiously passed around the room. Eva had once said that she looked forward to seeing her teacher’s ever-present smile wiped off her face—today her wish comes true. Erin, angrily berating the class for circulating such a hateful racial stereotyped drawing, tells them about another gang that makes them look like amateurs. She describes what Hitler and his Nazis did to the Jews. When she uses the term “the Holocaust,” a student asks what that is. Incredulous when only Ben raises his hand indicating that he knows, she comes across the Anne Frank book and thinks that a book written by a teenager who also was an outsider might be suitable for her classroom. She also finds and distributes copies of a book by a ghetto dweller who has overcome his obstacles and gone onto success. A third thing is when Erin stands in the school playground and observes how the students gathered in hostile groups—Cambodians, Blacks, Latinos, and Whites. She rises to Eva’s challenge ( “You don’t know us!” ) by giving out notebooks for the students to write in every day about their thoughts and happenings. She goes to a locker and, holding the key, tells the class that she will read only the journals that students leave there during class time; the rest of the time the cupboard will remain locked.
Many weeks into the term Erin finally is breaking through. What a pleasing surprise on the day when she unlocks the cupboard and finds that it is crammed full of notebooks! Discovering that there is a teacher who will respect them enough to listen, the students pour out their hearts, such as the following: From FW Diary, Day 1 “Following the Rodney King Riots and the O.J. Simpson trial, the mood in our city was unsettling, and on our first day of high school, we had only three things in common: we hated school, we hated our teacher, and we hated each other. ”
Over the next few weeks, as students write of parental neglect or abuse, mourning the death of friends or relatives killed in gang fights, and a host of other concerns, the atmosphere in the classroom changes dramatically. Indeed, what follows is so incredible that we would say it’s too Hollywoodish, much like the over the top ending of Mr. Holland’s Opus, except for the fact that Erin Gruwell is a real person, now teaching at the university level.
The film will at times evoke a tear or two, and Margaret’s opposition to every one of Erin’s innovations, which often is shown by quick cuts to her knocking on the Principal’s door to register another protest, will provoke laughter. The incredible success includes the seemingly crazy, fantastic scheme of the class coming up with the idea of inviting the Dutch woman who had hidden Anne Frank to come and visit them, and then raising the large sum of money necessary to carry through their plan. A high point of the film is Miep Gies’s (Pat Carroll) talking to the class, and the once angry black student Marcus (Jason Finn) standing up and telling her, “You are my hero,” to which Ms. Gies replies that she is not the hero, but they are because of their overcoming their adverse circumstances.
There is more, Erin leading the students in a study of the civil rights movement, and then the venture of gathering their journal entries with the view of publishing them. When she asks them what they should call the collection, they express their admiration for the group that endured taunts and beatings on the first Freedom Ride into the South by answering “Freedom Writers.” The collection, available now in book form, reminds me of the one written by grade school children and made into a haunting Broadway musical in the Sixties, The Me Nobody Knows. Thanks to teachers that care enough to listen, students then and more recently find that in writing they can not only get their feelings of rage and frustration off their chests, but also at the same time gain self-respect and caring support from the adults who seek to help them. Such adults, as Erin Gruwell showed so well, are very much like the shepherds whom the ancient prophet of Judah promised, ones “who will feed you with knowledge and understanding.”
1) How is Erin Gruwell like the teachers in other caring teacher films that you have seen? What about her superiors and fellow teachers, in regard to the way in which they view the “hopeless” students?
2) What is “the dividing wall of hostility” (see Ephesians 2:14) that Erin sees in the schoolyard? How does her red line game show that the disparate groups of students have a lot in common?
3) How does she show that she is willing to go beyond the call of duty in trying to reach her students?
4) How do we see that books can make a difference in a reader’s life? For another excellent film in which three books (Hitler’s Mein Kampf, the Bible, and Alan Paton’s Cry the beloved Country) affect a racist Afrikaner student, see Final Solution, for which VP published a discussion guide. What is it about Anne Frank’s story with which the various students identify?
5) For those who have seen Blackboard Jungle: compare the two scenes in which the two teachers discuss racial stereotyping.
6) Reflect upon the spiritual journey that a student makes, such as Eva’s or that of Marcus, or even of the white student, Ben. How is a caring adult important in their lives? And how do some adults impede or threaten their progress? Who were the teachers that you especially remember? Did any have a vital impact on your development?
7) How did you feel when Miep Gies visits the class? How must Marcus have felt? What do you think of her denying that she is a hero? In what way is she right in calling the students heroes? Who are some of the people living in seemingly undramatic circumstances that you would call heroes?
8) What do you think is the link between the film/book’s title and the Freedom Writers of the early 1960’s?
9) Why do you think the students begin to regard their classroom as “home” ? What is it that makes something feel like “home” ?
10) For more information and some teaching helps go to the film’s official website and click onto the list on the right side: http://www.freedomwriters.com/