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.
[tags]Freedom Writers, teaching, writing[/tags]