Towering Teachers

As we organize ourselves and others into a new school year, may our young ones be lucky enough to encounter a teacher as committed as the one featured in the great movie, Freedom Writers.

The idealistic optimism of youth is a nice thing to see. This type of sentiment can be seen in those leaving education enroute to their first jobs. They bubble with enthusiasm at their belief in possibility and change. However, the real world can be cruel. Our newbies are naïve. They don’t know what they don’t know. The systems of the real world are stacked to create challenges to change. When idealism intersects with institutions, the institutions usually win. As common as enthusiasm is in those entering the workforce, is its evaporation when bludgeoned by bureaucracy. This is the sad reality for many following the profession of teaching.

Education is a compelling career choice as it offers an opportunity to impose influence. It’s natural for those having fond memories of an impactful teacher in their own background to want to pay forward the support received. The love of learning combined with the potential for making a memorable difference in the lives of other combine to fuel a passion for this profession. Unfortunately, when part of a massive state run school system where so much of the process is mandated, the enthusiasm is eventually extinguished. Curriculums are set in stone. The numbers of students are determined by others. The range of abilities present in a class can be overwhelming. A teacher dances between trying to stimulate those for which the material comes easily with slowing down and spending time supporting those that struggle. By trying to cater to all, almost none are served. The frustrations only grow when the defeatist attitude of colleagues is seen. Those that are intent on making a difference quickly become the minority. The depressed attitude of those defeated by the system overrun them like a virus. It’s only natural to succumb.

Freedom Writers is a movie based on a true story which details the difference a teacher can make to students. The story takes place in Long Beach, California in the early 90s. Long Beach is feeling the continuing aftershocks in their community of the Rodney King race riots experienced in Los Angeles area. Gang violence is rampant. It’s a tough community. We meet Erin Gruwell played by Hillary Swank as she exits her education and enters the education system. Little does she know that her learning is about to begin in earnest. At it’s heart, it’s a story about Gruwell’s refusal to cave in to the challenges of serving in an unsympathetic system.

As she has her interview, she bubbles with excited energy about the opportunity. Gruwell practically glows with enthusiasm which offers no doubt that her love for learning will leap from her and land fully upon her waiting students. Teaching matters to her. She believes she is prepared and will do well. Moreover, she has chosen the particular school in which she finds herself as a result of some of policy decisions it has made. The administrator that Mrs. Gruwell meets with seeks to temper Erin’s enthusiasm. The administrator tries to talk Erin into having less ambitious learning objectives for her students. The students are behind. They perform well below their grade level. Attendance is fleeting. The students have problems. Mrs. Gruwell’s optimism can’t be contained. She remains confident that she and her students will live happily ever after.

Erin’s expectations and the cold, hard reality are about as wide apart as can be. The students in her class do their part to reflect their reality to Mrs. Gruwell in the first minutes of the first day of classes. The students are almost all of a minority background. There are African Americans, Asians, and Latinos. No group has a good relationship with any other group. They each fall into factions. They stick to themselves and have contempt for others. The only group to which their contempt is greater than each other is white people, particularly those in authority. This doesn’t offer a good start for Mrs. Gruwell. Yes, she’s hurt that her dreams of immediate influence and intellectual advancement implode, but she remains committed to making a difference. Erin’s empathy is remarkable. She tries to understand the lives of her students no matter how difficult they may be. These students aren’t worried about learning or their future. Their worlds are much narrower. They are simply trying to get through the day without seeing someone they know killed or being killed themselves. Their futures are bleak. They are focused on short term survival. Education is a luxury they can’t afford to take seriously. School is simply babysitting for them or a way for them to stay out of jail for the time being. The students and Mrs. Gruwell couldn’t be further apart from each other in terms of world view.

Erin embraces her new reality quickly. She refuses to give up on these children the way so many other teachers have and would. She works to find material that connects with them. She finds stories written about gang violence and tough living conditions that resonate with her students. She doubles down on her efforts to influence. She believes education is important and remains steadfast in her confidence to positively influence. Her own father and husband have doubts. They want to protect her from the pain of believing in those that will ultimately let her down. They see her as being full of talent and potential to do so much more than working a low paid job trying to teach disinterested kids that have no future. Nonetheless, Erin marches forward adapting her teaching plan to manage material that matters for her students. In time, a few warm up to her. She makes some progress. She is able to interest some students in writing. She provides them each with journals in which they are encouraged to write about anything. Their lives, their fears, their pain, their hopes.

Even as Erin makes inroads with her students, the established education system offers little help. She faces obstacle after obstacle. Other teachers don’t believe in her students and see her efforts as a waste of time. What is the point of making any educational improvement when most of the class will drop out in a year or so. They have given up on these kids based on prior year students. Her husband starts to resent the ongoing enthusiasm and tireless work ethic she brings. Mrs. Gruwell digs deeper and does more in the face of any obstacle. When her school administrators refuse to provide books for her students she purchases them with her own funds. Funds she now must earn from moonlighting with part time work. She picks up several additional jobs to earn extra money. The money earned is exclusively devoted to supporting her students. She’s either helping with materials or with subsidizing a field trip she organizes. The excursions are trips outside of the students’ neighborhood. For many students, this is the first time they’ve left. Mrs. Gruwell each day in some way opens a student’s eyes to possibility. They see a world outside of the misery to which they’ve been exposed since birth. They begin to believe their may be hope beyond today. Finishing high school becomes a possible goal forming in their minds. They lean into the work with which they connect and improve which further boosts their confidence.

Seeing any student show even the slightest interest in learning is the rocket fuel that boosts Mrs. Gruwell’s unrelenting efforts. She introduces them to ideas about the Holocaust and World War II. They take a trip to a museum where they feel the horrors of the holocaust. They lean into The Diary of Anne Frank. Students connect with the pain inflicted on others based on how they look alone. They empathize with the pain of a young girl their age reflected in her words. They echo her efforts by committing to developing their thoughts through writing in their own diaries. Somehow Mrs. Gruwell is able to attract a woman who helped hide the Frank family and now manages this historic house in Holland to come to visit and speak. The class raises funds. Mrs. Gruwell’s efforts begin to gain attention outside of the school. The press follows her efforts. As her efforts gain traction drawing her students in a positive direction, many of her colleagues continue to consider her efforts with contempt. The path is never easy. Her husband walks out on her as he’s tired of being second fiddle in the relationship. Her zeal, passion, and untiring approach to making a difference is too bright a light for some. They don’t want to see what they could become. They retreat from her and try to discredit the good she is doing.

Erin’s father has been along her journey since the beginning. Initially, he had doubts and wanted to protect his daughter from the pain of disappointment. He thought she could be doing so much more. Dad slowly comes around to being his daughter’s biggest fan and supporter. He sees her complete commitment being rewarded with her students’ improvements. We hear what may be the best line of the movie spoken by her father as they have dinner together. Erin is struggling with yet one more hurdle. She and her students want to stay together as a class in later years of high school yet the powers that be in the school system suggest she’s too young and inexperienced a teacher to be teaching the higher grade levels. She and her students are disheartened by the possibility they may be parted. Her father offers his daughter, “Erin, you’ve been blessed with a burden.” He has come to see that nothing about his daughter’s career choice is easy. Nothing about it makes logical sense. But education to her isn’t a job, it’s a calling. She’s been given something which most of us never fully experience which is a complete and total confidence in our direction. She knows what she is here on this earth to do. She’s Willing to Work and Happy to Hurt (W2W H2H) for her cause. The cause provides never ending fuel. There’s no day she’s not motivated to continue pressing forward. No difficulty offers a deterrent to her desire to persevere. To care so much about something that one is willing to apply themselves so feverishly is not a burden but a blessing. The opportunities Erin has for developing deep satisfaction for her own life are great from cultivating complete commitment to teaching.

A great quote captures what is the essence of being engaged. Austrian Philosopher, Karl Popper, wrote, “The best thing that can happen to a human being is to find a problem, to fall in love with that problem, and to live trying to solve that problem, unless another problem even more lovable appears.” Erin fell into Popper’s advice perfectly. She found a problem in which she fell in love. Her passion was greater than any problem encountered. It was almost as if the problem provided fuel for her efforts. Her attention was allocated to the needs of her students for almost every minute of every day. She was so committed that she tried to give more and more of herself to help. She gave up and sacrificed deeply on a personal level. There was little in reward that could be achieved. She wasn’t doing things for the money, for prestige, or for recognition. Her drive was making a difference. She was desperate to see her vision of a positive future for these children become their realities. Her passion provided a personal purpose. She wasn’t seeking comfort but embraced the challenge. Erin Gruwell was indeed blessed with a burden.

“Happiness involves working toward meaningful goals.” -Michel de Montaigne-