Freedom Writers' Odyssey Opens Eyes, Hearts

Who would have imagined where a disruption five years ago in a new teacher's classroom would lead? Intolerance in the form of a degrading racial caricature ridiculing a student motivated teacher Erin Gruwell to "go ballistic" and do something with her 150 Wilson students that has changed all of their lives. They have written a diary. Published by Doubleday, it was released in October. That work has literally taken them around the world and brought the world to them. Like young diarists before them--the Holocaust's Anne Frank and war-torn Bosnia's Zlata Filipovic--they have found that writing could help them rise above the strife in their lives. The students, many at risk of dropping out, discovered firsthand the great harm injustice could do--from their own experiences, from the tragic deaths of family and friends, from meeting Holocaust survivors and the woman who hid Anne Frank's family from the Nazis. "The message is tolerance and understanding where people come from," said Doubleday spokeswoman Sandy Yuen. "That was the greatest lesson these kids learned by reading about other teenagers who also were surrounded by violence. "With powerful entries from the students' own diaries and a narrative text by Erin Gruwell, The Freedom Writers Diary is an uplifting, unforgettable example of how hard work, courage and the spirit of determination changed the lives of a teacher and her students." When Gruwell first saw the caricature of a black student, she told her class, "This was the type of propaganda the Nazis used during the Holocaust. How many of you have heard of the Holocaust?" Not one of her students raised a hand. At that point she decided to make tolerance the focus of her class. They read Schindler's List, The Color Purple, The Diary of Anne Frank. They visited the Holocaust Museum and wrote about their own experiences with abuse, hatred, violence and man's inhumanity to man. They counseled younger children against joining gangs and urged them to stay in school. And they took their own advice for overcoming adversity. They read. They wrote. They excelled. They went to New York and Washington, D.C., to be honored by the Anne Frank Foundation and U.S. Secretary of Education Richard Riley. This summer they flew to Europe and to Bosnia, where they toured concentration camps and war-torn buildings. They were moved by what they saw--the death of dreams through senseless violence. They are deeply committed to stopping this tragedy. Last year, they all graduated. And today, they're all enrolled in college. They hope the proceeds of their book sales will pay for college tuition for all 150 Freedom Writers. Many are the first members of their families ever to finish high school, to be admitted to college and to win a scholarship. Their teacher and their writing convinced them that they could not only change their lives--which they have. Now they want to change the world.