I will be incommunicado until Monday, as I am accompanying our juniors on their grade-level trip. We are traveling through Montgomery and Selma, Alabama to learn about the Civil Rights Movement. We will travel north to Memphis to learn about the Blues, visit Beale Street, and see Graceland. I have been looking forward to this trip, and I’m really excited. I’ll tell you all about it when I return.
Her name was Kia. It actually took me a few days to remember that, though I have never forgotten her face. What made me remember her name? I recalled that at the time I taught her, I had associated her name with a fledgling car company. Then I remembered. I was a first year teacher. She was in my difficult sophomore class. They began testing me the second day. I was trying get a student who had just been enrolled in the class set with books and a syllabus, and I had this crazy idea that the class should be working quietly while I did this. They had another idea. I remember becoming so frustrated at one point that I told the class that it should be so quiet that I could hear a pin drop. Of course, I’m from the South, so pen/pin sound the same to us. They all dropped their pens. I remember the dread I felt at that moment. They were going to be difficult. And they sure were.
I had 33 students in that class. I had to put my large desks in tables because they wouldn’t fit otherwise. I was never given enough desks for all the students in that class. The class tested me at every turn. We were all confined together for 90 minutes every day due to the asinine 4X4 block schedule our school had adopted. No one will ever be able to convince me that a 4X4 block is a good idea. Oh sure, I had four classes each day. I also had each of them for 90 minutes.
I can’t remember anymore why I had asked Kia to go to the office. I remember very clearly that she was digging in her heels and wouldn’t leave. It was becoming a power struggle. I finally picked up her backpack, preparing to escort her myself when she snapped. She threatened me. To be honest, I can’t even remember what she threatened to do. I turned on my heel and went straight to the principal. That’s when I melted into a puddle of tears. A student had threatened to actually, physically hurt me.
I might be able to consider myself lucky compared to other teachers — I have only been threatened once. Once was enough. Kia was suspended for five days. Then she was returned to my classroom without incident. The principal visited my class a couple of times after that just to make sure all was well. I did not go home the day of the incident, even though my principal offered. To me, that would be like letting the kids know Kia won. I knew for sure the kids would talk about it. I knew it would be all over the school.
Kia was strange for the rest of the year. One would think she would give me dirty looks whenever she saw me, but it was quite the opposite. She would smile and say hello. As if nothing had happened. I still scratch my head over it.
Watching Freedom Writers put me in mind of this experience and several others I had, both as a student and as a teacher. When I reflect on this experience after nearly 10 years have passed, I don’t feel angry. I can’t even remember the details. Funny, isn’t it? One would expect never to forget something like that. And I had trouble even remembering her name.
I don’t have the opportunity to go to the movies very often, and I am choosy about which movies I see in the theater. Let’s face it, when movies cost $9.50 a pop, and I have two small children who can’t sit through most movies, I suppose it isn’t surprising that I might go only once a year. Do you remember being a teenager and going to the movies with your friends every weekend? I digress. My boss gave each faculty member gift cards to Starbucks and Regal Cinemas for Hanukkah — nothing extravagant, just enough for a cup of coffee and one movie ticket. However, I have always appreciated these gifts more than he might realize because I rarely get to indulge in going to the theater. I suppose for that reason, I also hang onto my movie gift card until something really looks good. Last year, I saw The Chronicles of Narnia with my gift card. This year, my gift card burned a hole in my pocket for some time. There really wasn’t anything out that I wanted to see. I saw a few commercials for Freedom Writers and decided it looked good, so I decided to use my gift card on this film rather than wait to use it on Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix as I expected I might have to do. I was not disappointed, and I believe I would have paid to see the film.
The film begins as Erin Gruwell, a fresh-faced, naive first-year English teacher is given her classroom assignment of remedial freshman classes. She carefully chooses her outfit for the first day, confidently adding a string of pearls her department head advised her not to wear to school. When she peeks in her classroom for the first time, I couldn’t help but be reminded of my own first look at my classroom in my first year teaching. She writes her name in neat cursive script, and as she waits for her class to file in, her excitement is palpable. The very first day, a fight breaks out in her class and it is clear that this experience is not going to be what she thought it would be. A short exposition reveals the violence and despair that are a daily part of her students’ lives. She resolves to keep fighting, despite the advice of her father and worries of her husband. When she finds a racist cartoon drawn by one of the students, she uses the moment to teach the students about the Holocaust. The classroom is gradually transformed into family, a safe zone, and a vibrant writing lab. Students begin to chronicle their lives in diaries given to them by Ms. Gruwell. Students read literature like The Diary of Anne Frank and begin to see how others have dealt with living in war zones that resemble their own home in Long Beach. They write letters to Miep Gies, who sheltered the Frank family in her home during the Holocaust, and raise funds enable Gies to come and speak at their school.
The reviews on this film are mixed, mainly because Freedom Writers is not the first film to feature a white teacher transforming the lives of students — in this case, Cambodian, African-American, and Hispanic (along with one very scared white kid). I can’t deny that it’s true that this story has been done before; however, don’t let that discourage you from seeing it. I thought the movie was incredibly moving. I think if you have ever taught a difficult group of students — or perhaps if you’ve ever taught, period — and this movie fails to make you cry at some point, then you have a heart of stone. I think all of us walk into a classroom at some point, believing we will be crusaders who change the world. We have these little mugs that say “2 teach is 2 touch lives 4 ever,” right? Or the little poster that says, “A teacher affects eternity; he can never tell where his influence stops.” I think many of us begin the profession with the same eager optimism that Hilary Swank as Erin Gruwell captures so well in the film. Many of us gradually become more like Gruwell’s department head — convinced the kids are bad, unteachable, and ultimately going to quit school anyway, so why bother? Or we become like the teacher in Erin’s department who refuses to teach anyone but Honors students or upperclassmen. I read at least one review that took exception to the portrayals of Erin’s colleagues, but anyone who has ever taught has run into teachers just like them. However, one simply doesn’t run into teachers like Erin Gruwell often.
Some of you might remember I took a Schools Attuned course last summer. I am still working on my practicum. I decided to complete the practicum online due to time and travel consideration. Once I complete my practicum and portfolio, I will earn CEU credits. I just completed the third of six practicum sessions today. It feels good to say I’m at least halfway there.
I’m definitely going to see Freedom Writers tomorrow. My boss gave me a movie gift card, and I think if I go to a matinee, I just might be able to get some snacks, too. I’ll let you know what I think with a review, so watch this space.
Are any of you going to see Freedom Writers? I just sent an e-mail to my department head asking if she’d like to go see it with me this weekend. I wasn’t sure if she had heard of the movie (I hadn’t until a couple of days ago), so I enclosed the IMDb link for the movie. I was curious about some of the message board subject titles on that movie’s page, so I logged in to see what was up. Looks like the board is on fire with debate about the merits of what appears to be yet another movie featuring a white savior who transforms the lives of students who are mostly underprivileged nonwhites living in neighborhoods infested with gang activity. On the one hand, those naysayers have a point. There have been quite a few movies like this one. Dangerous Minds and The Ron Clark Story come to mind. However, there are also movies like Stand and Deliver and To Sir With Love that feature inspirational teachers of diverse racial backgrounds. Erin Gruwell, who wrote The Freedom Writers Diary: How a Teacher and 150 Teens Used Writing to Change Themselves and the World Around Them, also happens to be white, so on the other hand, I don’t understand criticism about her race. It seems as though the movie producers were trying to be accurate. Amazing, inspirational teachers work all over the world and never get recognition or attention outside of the students whose lives they touch. I think many people who go into teaching really want to touch students in the way that Erin Gruwell has.
My first year teaching, I taught at a rural, underprivileged school not far from Macon, Georgia. We had a gang problem — there was nearly a fight between two boys of rival gangs in my classroom because one of them had a Band-aid stuck to his shirt. I can only remember that it was some sort of gang code for something, but what it meant I have since forgotten. I deeply wanted to show these kids that they were smart, that they had a future, that they could write. They wrote poetry — some of it I still remember well. They read Shakespeare. They also had a lot of problems, and I was not the transforming power I wanted to be — the kind of teacher one sees in these sorts of movies. I would like to think that I touched the students in some way and that some of them still retain positive feelings about their reading and writing experiences in my classroom. Truthfully, however, I’m not really sure I made much of an impact. I ran into many of them a couple of years after I left the school at a field trip to the very Shakespeare play — A Midsummer Night’s Dream — that they read in my class. We were such a poor school that I made photocopies of the entire play for the students. The other 10th grade English teacher didn’t teach Shakespeare. She disliked Shakespeare (which I never understood — how can you be an English teacher and dislike Shakespeare? — but then, I don’t understand how anyone can dislike Shakespeare) and didn’t teach his work. Her rationale was that she knew students would all read Macbeth in the 12th grade, as our 12th grade English teacher always taught that play — as if exposure to one play is enough! I am getting wildly off-topic, so just before I veer back on course, I just want to add Shakespeare is my favorite writer to teach, and I am currently enjoying a study of King Lear with my seniors.
Back on track. Where was I? My point was that despite the fact that the students were glad to see me at the play, and that I was truly glad to see them, I didn’t come anywhere close to doing for them what teachers like Ron Clark or Erin Gruwell did for their students. I couldn’t handle working at that school, where lack of discipline and violence ran rampant, and my principal denied there was any problem to a ridiculous degree. I just couldn’t do it. And where am I now? At a private school teaching students who for the most part have more opportunities in life than I have had. Sometimes I tell myself they don’t need me… but all students need good teachers — even those who don’t live in a ghetto rife with gang warfare. I am not sure anymore where I’m going with this post. I suppose I’m just dumping my feelings. I think in some way, I am trying to say that I would have loved to have transformed the lives of my students. I don’t think I did, but I think I gave them a good education for the time they were in my classroom. Their faces are blurring, and I can’t recall most of their names now. I am immensely proud of those teachers, like Erin Gruwell, who really do something amazing for the students who need them the most. I am honored to share the same profession with the likes of these educators. They are outstanding, and they succeed against some tough odds. I suppose, therefore, that it bothers me when such inspirational stories are reduced to a debate about the fact that the teacher is white.
Despite discussing the possibility of taping my presentation in an earlier post, I didn’t get a chance to do so. I had too much to do today to run downstairs, get the camera, and figure out how to use it. Sorry!