Authors: Erin Gruwel & The Freedom Writers
Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
Summary (from Goodreads):
Straight from the front line of urban America, the inspiring story of one fiercely determined teacher and her remarkable students.
As an idealistic twenty-three-year-old English teacher at Wilson High School in Long beach, California, Erin Gruwell confronted a room of “unteachable, at-risk” students. One day she intercepted a note with an ugly racial caricature, and angrily declared that this was precisely the sort of thing that led to the Holocaust—only to be met by uncomprehending looks. So she and her students, using the treasured books Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl and Zlata’s Diary: A Child’s Life in Sarajevo as their guides, undertook a life-changing, eye-opening, spirit-raising odyssey against intolerance and misunderstanding. They learned to see the parallels in these books to their own lives, recording their thoughts and feelings in diaries and dubbing themselves the “Freedom Writers” in homage to the civil rights activists “The Freedom Riders.”
With funds raised by a “Read-a-thon for Tolerance,” they arranged for Miep Gies, the courageous Dutch woman who sheltered the Frank family, to visit them in California, where she declared that Erin Gruwell’s students were “the real heroes.” Their efforts have paid off spectacularly, both in terms of recognition—appearances on “Prime Time Live” and “All Things Considered,” coverage in People magazine, a meeting with U.S. Secretary of Education Richard Riley—and educationally. All 150 Freedom Writers have graduated from high school and are now attending college.
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.
The authors’ proceeds from this book will be donated to The Tolerance Education Foundation, an organization set up to pay for the Freedom Writers’ college tuition. Erin Gruwell is now a visiting professor at California State University, Long Beach, where some of her students are Freedom Writers.
I started reading the Freedom Writers’ diary in 2013 right after watching the mmovie that was based on it. To tell you the truth, I found it quite hard from time to time to pick up the book and read it. It’s not an easy book to read at all. Of course, I’m not referring to the writing style, which I will talk about later. What I mean is that the subject is a very heavy one.
As an experience it was an eye-opening one; reading about what these young people had to endure so early in their lives made me see many things through a very different perspective.
But before I start talking about my impressions of the book, let me talk a bit about how it is written. The book is prefaced by Zlata Filipovic. After that, it is separated into eight parts, which are the eight semesters that the Freedom Writers spent in Classroom 203, each of which has a prologue written by Erin Gruwell. Other than that there are no chapters in the book. The only separation is between diary entries. As for the writing, it is the type of writing that you would expect to see in any 14-to-18-year-old’s diary. It’s very simple and full of slang terms. But this very simple writing style helped me connect with the authors and understand much better how that person was feeling at the time, than any veteran author’s sophisticated writing ever could. Having said that, let’s move on to the rest of the review.
First of all, the reading of this book strengthened my belief that very few things are as they seem to be and especially when it comes to judging a person. The Freedom Writers were teenagers, whom everyone had given up on, who no one believed that they could ever have something good to offer to the world. Even the Writers themselves couldn’t believe that they would ever be lucky enough to survive and actually manage to graduate high school. But against all odds and contrary to most people’s belief they actually did that and even more. The Freedom Writers -a group of kids that a few years ago were gang members, drug addicts, criminals, etc.- become a symbol that promoted tolerance and non-violence. And this remarkable event happened because of a stubborn, caring teacher.
At the beginning of the book, it was obvious how distrustful the children were of Erin Gruwell. They didn’t like her and some of them even hated her. This distrust stemmed from the fact that she was white, that they didn’t think she had anything useful to teach them, that no other teacher had ever cared about them, and many other things. Also, at the beginning I could see how strong the prejudices of these kids were and how strongly they believed that violence was their only way to protect themselves and their loved ones.
However, there is a very slow, gradual change. In the middle part of the book I could see how prejudice was slowly turning into tolerance. The very dark and depressing tone of the first half of the book was slowly turning into hope. More and more of the students started to think about what their English teacher was trying to teach them. Slowly some of them started to speak up against violence and prejudice.
Of course, there were times when things seemed to finally get better and then I would move on to the next student’s diary entry and something really bad would happen. At these times, I remember telling myself: “Haven’t these kids gone through enough already?” Nevertheless, the initial reaction of the students, which had been to immediately want to give up all of the hard work that had gotten them to that point, changed into a much more positive approach to the obstacles life throws in front of us. By the end of the book the same students had learned tonface these problems head on and use their experiences as lessons on how to become better people.
In my posts on social media I called The Freedom Writers’ Diary an inspirational book. While I was writing this I feared that people might think I was crazy. But I stand by this opinion. It is an inspirational and thought-provoking book. If you disagree with me then read it and then come back here to tell me how these people’s struggle and their success despite/because of that struggle cannot be inspirational and thought-provoking.
“History repeats itself.”
When I saw this quote in the book, I was reminded of Thucydides. I know that many of you might think right now: “Yeah, right. Because Thucydides is the first person that comes to mind of any person when reading a book like The Freedom Writers’ Diary. It’s just another Greek referencing Ancient Greeks to make herself sound sophisticated!” or something close to that. Honestly, what I’m going to say is something we were taught several times through high school, and it is also something I personally believe in.
Thucydides was an Ancient Greek philosopher, who invented the science of History as we know it today. He believed that “human nature does not change and because of that history will always repeat itself in one way or another” and that was the reason for the methods he used while recording historical events. He wanted to create a reference for the next generations in order to learn from their ancestors’ mistakes and avoid repeating them.
But why am I quoting Thucydides in a book review? Firstly, because he is one of my favorite philosophers and I will never get tired of quoting him, especially when it comes to this specific quote; and secondly, because what I’m going to say next is very closely related to that quote.
In the book, one of the F.W. wrote that what happened with the Nazis and Anne Frank and what happened to Zlata in Serbia was simply history repeating itself. At that moment, one question started repeating itself in my brain: “What’s the difference between Zlata and the thousands of refuggees reaching my country every day? Isn’t that history repeating itself?” The answer, of course, is yes. It is obviously history repeating itself. 50 years after WWII and little more than a decade after the war in Serbia, which is so very close to Turkey, and it is all happening again. When will we ever learn?
I don’t like discussing politics here on this blog and I try to avoid getting into political conversations through my posts, but I couldn’t not make this comment because it shows how timeless this book is and how I can relate to some of the things described in it. After all, even though the war has not reached my country, there is talk of a refugee camp opening very close to my hometown. I don’t know how close it will be, but it will definitely affect my life.
Finally, I want to make one more comment before closing this post. When I recently met the author Dimitris Stefanakis (something I talked about in a recent post on this blog) I heard him repeatedly say that he doesn’t believe that literature can teach anything to people. At the time I heard him say that, I wanted to ask him about it. To be honest I had a couple of very good questions I could have asked him, but I am so shy around people I don’t know and especially when so many people are watching me that I just couldn’t bring myself to ask those questions. Now, after finishing The Freedom Writers’ Diary and seeing how much literature taught these young people, I can’t stop wondering what would he have said about that. So, I decided to contact him and ask him as soon as I finish reading his book. I have even found how to contact him through his blog. I will ask him the questions I should have had the courage to ask him in person.
In conclusion, The Freedom Writers’ Diary has inspired me in many ways. I want to become a person that has actually done something to help the people around her. I have decided that if refugees end up being sent close to where I live, I will try to do something to help them. I don’t know if I will have the guts to actually do it, but I would like to try and teach some them my language. I don’t even know if this is possible, but if it is I would like to try. I know that those refugees would probably care more about being given something to eat or clothes to wear, but the truth of the matter is that these are people who have been stranded in a foreign country with no way to support themselves. Knowing the country’s language and being able to communicate with the native population will help them find jobs and actually improve the quality of their lives in the long run.
Of course, there is the matter of me being incredibly shy. I’m already frightened of going to a group of people I don’t know and who would probably have difficulty understanding me and offer to teach them Greek. Nevertheless, to quote Thucydides again: “The bravest are surely those who have the clearest vision of what is before them, glory and danger alike, and yet notwithstanding, go out to meet it.” One thing is for sure: one day I will be a teacher. But I don’t want to be a common teacher; I want to be like Erin Gruwell.
Now it’s your turn…
Have you read the Freedom Writers’ Diary? What did you think about it? If you haven’t read it, then would you like to? What are your thoughts on what I said in this review? How has the book or maybe even my review of it affected you? What would you do to make a change in this world if you could, however big or small? How can you make a change right now? How crazy do you think is my idea of teaching Greek to a bunch of hungry refugees?
Tell me all about it in the comments below…
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