Guest review: The Freedom Writers Diary

The Freedom Writers Diary
A Guest Review by Book_Collector_451

When I first heard of The Freedom Writers Diary many years ago, I was a bit skeptical about its overall impact and message. A few of my friends discussed it briefly in one of my classes and made mention of the film that was produced in 2007 starring Hilary Swank. Eventually, I decided to sit down one night and watch the film. This was an exceptionally brilliant decision on my part, as my life has not been the same since. The characters, themes and issues explored in the film – some of which we as a community experience every day, others of which are utterly horrendous to even consider – profoundly changed how I look at the world. My intention for this review is to focus not on the movie, but on the 10th Anniversary edition of the “diary,” the original compilation of entries by the Freedom Writers and their teacher, Erin Gruwell.

The diary explores a significant number of core issues and themes in Ms. Gruwell’s students’ lives, as well as her reactions at the beginning or end of each semester she had with them. Her students attended school in Los Angeles during the 1992 Rodney King race riots and felt the full impact of the monumental events that were occurring. Constant gang and racial violence, death, drive by shootings, teen pregnancy, illiteracy, drugs, alcohol, abuse, abandonment, illegal immigration and broken homes consumed the everyday life that each student experienced. Moreover, her students were essentially labelled the ‘rejects’ of their communities and school. Very few of them cared enough or had the skills to do anything or get anywhere, let alone having any hope of graduating from high school.

The “diary” chronicles the students’ four-year journey with Ms. Gruwell in Room 203 and their “Toast for Change,” an incredible feat in itself. The freedom writers are very rarely identified by name, and each entry is simply given a number. We as readers are exposed to the brutal personal stories of those who have chosen to contribute entries, as well as the small glimmers of hope that some students have. Each semester – fall or spring – opens with an entry from Ms. Gruwell herself and explores her personal thoughts, feelings and adventures as their teacher. Readers are given a clear idea of how the classes slowly succeed one step at a time, learning how to find their voices and express themselves; about how topics like the Holocaust are used to teach tolerance; about how the many community and state groups that assisted them were able to support them; as well as the phenomenal experiences and trips that they were able to take to places such as state and national museums, as well as visiting Washington Square and the American House of Congress. The greatest achievements for some were to meet the people and heroes they read about and wrote to. Chief among these were Miep Gies, the woman who sheltered Anne Frank from the Nazis as long as she could; Zlata Filipovic, a teenage girl who barely managed to escape Sarajevo with her family in the early 1990’s; Peter Maass, a respected journalist, and many more.

After four long, challenging and exciting years, the majority of Ms. Gruwell’s students’ lives have been transformed for the better. The majority graduated with their grade twelve diploma, and many more went off to college or university. To say that this was a happy ending or the start of a bright future for all is a bit much. There were, sadly, a number of students who did make poor choices and decisions after high school which affected their life for years afterwards, as is noted in the final entries of the 10th Anniversary edition of the “diary.” There were those, however, who continued to strive to improve themselves and make a difference in their community and the lives of others. The actions and lessons learned in Room 203 are still having a profound effect on others even today.

Ultimately, I enjoyed reading The Freedom Writers Diary for what it was worth. I encourage anyone who can borrow a copy and has the time to read it to do so. It may not be profound like the works of William Shakespeare; it may not be as thorough and grandiose as Charles Dickens; and it may not be as immediately inspiring as Robin Williams’ character of Mr. Keating in The Dead Poets Society, but it is worth the time and effort put into it. The entries are ultimately simple stories that come from the heart about survival, human emotions, and finding ones voice in a mad and out of control world. The stories we read about are written by those who, to borrow from the poet Robert Frost, “took the road less traveled by, / And that has made all the difference.”

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