An Open Letter to the Freedom Writers, Erin “Ms. G” Gruwell, and Mr. Jess Turner

I just finished reading the Freedom Writers’ Diary for the first time. It has been on my list of things to do for quite some time but to be honest I was a bit nervous about what I would find in its pages. And I found everything I thought I would.

This was an incredibly difficult book for me to read. Maybe the hardest ever. Not because the writing was too complex, or conversely, too simple, not because of the intensely harrowing stories you all had to tell, but because of the clarity I have received regarding my own past.

I was not raised in the “Projects” of any major city nor in a country torn apart by war and ignorance. But I was one of you. Written off by the system, never expected to be anything more than mediocre. But it wasn’t because I was poor or homeless or dyslexic or a minority. It was because I am from a small mountain farm community in Colorado where Kindergarten through 12th grade was in the same building and where nothing but mediocrity was expected from any of the students.

I don’t know the exact statistics but somewhere in the neighborhood of 85-90% of the graduates of my tiny school went directly into the workforce, went into the military or a smaller group stayed at home with their parents and went to the local state college. Very few of us went outside the county to go to college and even fewer left the state. Of those who did either, those attending large major universities were the smallest minority yet.

And that was thinking inside the box. For someone like me, none of these option were the right ones. Unfortunately, the words “art school” or “liberal arts college” were completely outside the vocabularies of anyone who was part of our faculty or school staff. Only one person ever indicated there might be university programs tailor-made for an art freak like me. I am a storyteller now, was a storyteller then and that is the only thing I’ve ever known how to be.

Even worse than the statistics was the attitudes we met with. In one instance a small group of us were told we would not be offered advanced placement courses because the chances of us succeeding in them were too low (essentially, we weren’t smart enough). Later we were told the school would not be proctoring the SATs because only East Coast schools really required them and since none of us would be going to any of them it wasn’t necessary. We could go to the local community college and pay to take them, as well as the SAT prep course, but it would not be done through our school. The Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery, however, was required of every student. More evidence of what was expected of us.

I’m not saying no one ever got out, no one ever excelled in their lives. But as I look back at my time there, I realize the ones who did, did it on their own. There was no one pushing any of us to excel, no one focusing on what we could do rather than what we did do. No one said if you work hard, it doesn’t matter who you are or where you are from. You can go anywhere and do anything. And it wasn’t even a case of opposite extremes, the way people always say, where the top tier and the bottom tier got all the attention. The reality was those who acted out and behaved like savages got all of the attention and the rest of us were left to teach ourselves and guide ourselves on our own paths.

And I, unfortunately, chose the path of least resistance. Because there was no one telling me about there could be a real future in my art, if I just found the right program (and here, take a look at these). Like I said before, there was one teacher who offered to be that person, to push me, guide me, give me options that no one else would acknowledge were possible for anyone from my school.

When I was in the 8th grade, we got a new teacher for our Language Arts class. He – and his wife – were young, ambitious, imaginative creatures who turned convention on its ear. He was my Ms. G. He took me aside one day and said things that I’d never heard before. First he said, “You are so smart and have so much potential… But I’m guessing you’ve heard that before so let’s take a different route.”

And we talked, openly, honestly, about the things that I enjoyed doing, the things that were hard for me, both academically and in life in general. We talked about how he thought my biggest problem was not that I was a troublesome person or that I didn’t understand what I was being taught but that I was being taught at a level far beneath where I needed to be. He told me to read the Lord of the Rings and look into the writing program at the University of San Francisco.

The Fall of my Freshman year he taught a creative writing workshop class. It was the only elective class to have a waiting list to get in and as I’m sure is the case anywhere, Freshmen got the short stick in that deal. When someone dropped the class, he bumped four older students to offer me the open seat. We all made it a year-long class, refusing to drop it from our schedules in the Spring. But come Spring, Mr. and Mrs. Turner, Jess and Lisa, were bullied out of their jobs. They were given the option to resign or be terminated. They both chose to resign at the end of the year. So, where we all faced losing the most amazing, influential teachers who truly believed we could excel, regardless of what the rest of the world thought, I lost my Ms. G. Because unlike Ms. G, the Turners had no one in their court fighting to keep them but the students. The same students who would later be told we were too dumb for advanced placement classes – of course they didn’t care what we thought.

Everything in my life has been a direct result of choices I have made. I know that. I accept that. I do not deny that. At the same time, I look back over my life and wish that I had had someone there, like Erin Gruwell, telling me my decisions didn’t have to be between choices A and B. That there were choices C-Z and 1-10 available to me as well, if I just wanted them badly enough. I feel I made some of the decisions I made because I wasn’t told there were any other options. I bought this car after being told brakes and a steering wheel come standard and you have the option of adding a cassette player, air bags and adjustable seats. No one told me there was an available CD changer, heated seats, and climate control or even that the car came in other colors. I believe Jess would have worked the up-sell until I left with a Range Rover. Nevermind standard options or above-standard options. Customize the hell out of this life. And I am trying, trying so hard to do that. I’m late, jumping on the train, but I’m trying to make my life what it should have been from the start.

So I wanted to say thank you. I fought back tears reading your stories that reminded me so much of the teacher I didn’t have, for very much the same reasons you worried about keeping your own young, ambitious, imaginative teacher who believed in you so much, and stories that reminded me so much of what I want my life to be. I have renewed vigor to make what I want happen. I know I’ll be knocked down again, discouraged again, heartbroken again but for now, I thank you for reminding me of what I want.

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