The True History Behind ‘Freedom Writers’

What about the millions of other classrooms out there whose stories go unheard?

Image for postFrom Jinh0574 on Wikipedia Commons

As a teacher in inner-city Baltimore, the movie Freedom Writers has a very mixed reputation, to say the least. Some see the movie as inspirational, but others see it as a white savior movie that implies that all inner-city kids need is a white savior teacher who can change their lives

It?s a Hollywood movie that sensationalized what it means to be an inner-city teacher. Having just survived my first year ? I realize that I have to do all the things that Hilary Swank, the actor that plays the real-life Erin Gruwell, didn?t do: put boundaries between work and your personal life, realize that you can?t save your students, and not ruin your marriage or relationship because you are so sucked into your work.

In real life, however, Erin Gruwell actually did do some great work at Woodrow Wilson High School (whose name a petition is now urging to change) in Long Beach, but real life is, of course, more ambiguous than the movie. Gruwell did a lot of good with her student, but other teachers in the school did too. She was the only one that got mass media attention, and it?s not like she didn?t deserve it, but other teachers deserved it too.

Here?s the true story behind Freedom Writers.

Backlash within the Long Beach Community

Image for postThe Wilson High School Science Building ? 2005, Public Domain

The true story is a balance between the reactionary perception that Gruwell manipulated and used her kids? academic success for personal gain, and the white savior narrative that she changed her students? lives.

Today, Gruwell is a professor at the California State University at Long Beach, but she and the movie came under a lot of criticism because of depicting the school as a ?beaten-down, inner-city nightmare? in the words of Gina Piccalo at the Los Angeles Times. It depicts teachers as being bitter and burned out, and students as carrying guns.

?Anyone who knows Long Beach knows the high school is nothing like that,? Long Beach Unified School District Superintendent, Chris Steinhauser, said.

Even though Steinhauser thought that the movie offered an uplifting message, a lot of Long Beach residents did not like the Hollywood version, feeling like the movie offered an oversimplified and insulting narrative about the Long Beach community: ?poor racial minorities triumph over lazy, jealous teachers and The Man,? according to Piccalo.

Gruwell and director of Freedom Writers, Richard LaGravenese, insist that the film shows Wilson High as the movie took place in 1993 and 1998. Today, many students from the school come from the Eastside of Long Beach, where there are students with waterfront mansions and pools.

Gruwell defends the movie?s depiction, saying that her classrooms were predominantly African-American, Latino, and Asian, while the white middle-class students came after word spread about her teaching methods. The film wasn?t filmed at Wilson High School, but rather at two local L.A. high schools.

It seems then that Long Beach had gentrified and, as of 2007, had a heavy divide between its upper-middle-class and low-income communities. Piccola writes that Long Beach had long tried to distance itself from images popularized by Snoop Dogg, a Long Beach native, which featured ?LBC?, a rap group that popularized west coast hip-hop.

The Long Beach community itself turned out to see the movie in 2007, but what about the people who actually worked in Wilson High School and with Gruwell?

Few deny that Gruwell was successful in her classroom, but Brad Rudy, a substitute teacher at Wilson High School who, as of 2007, was a history teacher in the school, felt like Gruwell was too self-aggrandizing, and prioritized talking about herself more than her students.

?Every teacher that I know that is worth their weight in salt talks about their students, their students, their students,? Rudy said. ?People that knew Erin Gruwell knew that she talks about herself, herself and herself and then her students.?

Rudy is among the group of teachers that saw Gruwell as an ?excessive self-promotor who has hurt the school?s reputation,? according to a January 7th, 2007 article by Kevin Butler in the Long Beach Press Telegram.

Supporters of Gruwell, including Carl Cohn, former Long Beach Superintendent, defended her devotion to her students.

?She turned her classroom into a family,? Cohn said. ?And this family was a positive substitute for the negatives ? the really big-time negatives ? in their lives.?

Horace Hall, a government and economics teacher during Gruwell?s time at Wilson High School, said that Erin really did help her students and ?gave the students an opportunity to dream, maybe for the first time.?

Gruwell would say that she was unfairly attacked during her tenure at Wilson High School because of her unusual teaching style and the fact that she dressed formally, and a lot of people in the building were openly disdainful of her behind her back in the teacher?s lounge.

In defense of the critique of being too self-promotional, Gruwell said that it was attention forced upon her in the media as a catalyst for education reform. She said that she would be profiting from self-promotion if she were, but she hadn?t.

Image for postErin Gruwell in 2015 ? From Erin Gruwell on Wikipedia Commons

Tension within the English department

Conflict within the Wilson High School English department was there, according to Cohn. Some employees at the school wrote to Cohn that ?she ought to be reined in,? but Cohn as the most powerful person in the school district defended Gruwell.

Rudy claims that the portrait of the school in Freedom Writers, one that showed a dangerous and gang-filled school with graffiti and large fights all the time, have people asking Rudy whether the school is ?really that bad?.

Another Wilson teacher, Sue Westphal, who was the head of the English department during Gruwell?s time at Wilson high school also lamented that the film portrayed the school as ?a gang-infested school where nobody cares,? but acknowledged that during the Rodney King riots, there was a fight involving 20 or more kids on campus.

It was a large, urban school, and Westphal says that at any of those schools, there were going to be fights. But Westphal says that kids felt safe overall. Hall said that he wasn?t worried about the film damaging the school?s reputation because it depicted largely what happened in Gruwell?s classroom over what happened within the school itself.

A Long Beach board member, Karin Polacheck, said that any large urban high school was going to have problems, but that Gruwell probably overstated its problems. Polacheck was more understanding of the fact that some of Gruwell?s students had been exposed to gangs, and that the film wasn?t dependent on that.

The two main villains in the film, an honors teacher and the English department head, who made negative remarks about Gruwell?s students and made racist remarks about the bad effects of integration on the school, are argued by Wilson teachers to reflect poorly on Wilson teachers. But Gruwell claims that these two characters are fictional representations of people who were against her at the school.

Drama teacher at Wilson, Randy Bowden, said that the story falsely implied that ?no one cared about kids until she arrived? and that he hadn?t heard a racist statement for 35 years since she came to the school.

Gruwell?s response was that she did face a lot of resistance.

Gruwell claimed that a teacher told her that she was making all the teachers look bad by taking them on field trips. She believes that this resistance was faced by Gruwell?s peppy demeanor and business suits and pearls, and she even acknowledged that there were phenomenal teachers in the school.

The depiction of the department head in the film was reluctant to give Gruwell?s students full versions of books like The Diary of Anne Frank and Romeo and Juliet because she thought kids might lose and damage the books.

The real department head, Westphal, said that Gruwell was allowed to use the full book room and that when Gruwell requested copies of Night by Elie Wiesel, Westphal ordered it the following year. She also rebutted Gruwell?s claim that her professional dress like business suits led to opposition, saying:

?Everybody was wearing suits and dresses back then.?

David Beard, who was the guidance counselor at Wilson during the time, said that the character of the department chair in the movie was a ?Hollywood exaggeration.? The character, in his words, ?seems to be a composite of every single negative thing that was said about Erin.?

Cohn said that Gruwell didn?t have control over what Hollywood would do and that these were just formulas for them to use.

Gruwell?s request to keep her kids all four years was very unusual

As a final note in Butler?s article, Gruwell?s request to keep her kids all four years of school was not conventional and was usually not allowed. As a teacher myself, I know how it is: you teach your grade level and stick with it because other kids need your help beyond the ones you teach in a given year. Everyone has an assigned role, grade level, and subject to teach.

Beard would say that the request raised concerns because it was disrespectful to other teachers. If Gruwell wanted the same group of kids all four years, but what was the 10th-grade teacher supposed to do when Gruwell wanted those 10th-grade kids? What about the 11th-grade teacher? The 12th-grade teacher?

The department made the arrangement by making her senior year course an elective since retirements and transfers from the school accommodated Gruwell?s desired schedule changes.

In the film, the ending scenes have the deliberation for Gruwell to keep her kids for their junior and senior years as divisive and contentious issues, but Beard says that in reality, they were worked out pretty easily and that a dramatic meeting between Cohn, Polacheck, and the rest of the department actually did not happen.

What about the untold freedom writers out there?

Image for postFrom Paul Bradbury/KOTO on Adobe Stock

Freedom Writers is probably a movie that has made a great effect on education and a movie that reaffirms the necessity of prioritizing relationships with students. Cohn hopes it joins the debate on school reform, but I personally can?t help but feel like Gruwell was at least a bit self-promotional and disrespectful of other teachers.

She had a good relationship with the superintendent of her school, who is, position-wise, at least three places above her department chair and well above her principal. Having the superintendent in her corner is a luxury that few teachers in any district have, but Gruwell says that she had a really rough time because other teachers would accuse her of having slept with Cohn to gain that influence

Polacheck says that she understands why teachers and staff at the school might be upset. Gruwell?s classes had kids who wanted to transfer in, and Beard said that when students wanted to transfer classes, ?it wasn?t really a big deal.? A lot of teachers in the school actually thought she was doing a marvelous job according to Beard.

Beard thinks that the reason why some teachers got jealous is that Gruwell and her students received widespread media attention and got lucky.

?Some had the notion that ?Hey, one of our own is getting all these headlines and all these accolades,?? Beard said. ??And we work as hard as she does, and who ever comes and talks to us?? And that was a normal human reaction to that kind of thing.?

And that mindset is natural for any teacher. All educators try very hard and care a lot for their students. Quite frankly, in my experience as a teacher, no one has the time or energy to undermine a fellow teacher if they?re busy planning and teaching their own students.

Gruwell may have struck gold with media attention so much that Hollywood wanted to make a movie off her classroom, but what about the millions of other classrooms out there whose stories go unheard?


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