By Erin Gruwell, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: Erin Gruwell is the inspiration for the film “Freedom Writers,” starring Hilary Swank. She helped a group of disengaged students in Long Beach, California, turn their lives around by reading stories of people whose struggles they could relate to. She encouraged them to pick up a pen and put their stories on the record. She is the founder of the Freedom Writers Foundation and author of a new nonfiction reading and writing program from Scholastic called On the Record.
(CNN) - When I reminisce about my first day as a teacher, I can remember walking into my classroom in polka dots and pearls, with the hope that I could change the world – or at least the worlds of the students assigned to my ninth grade English class. Then I discovered that my students hated reading and hated writing, and complete and utter panic set in. Quickly, my idealism turned to doubt—and I doubted my decision to be a teacher and my ability to reach my students.
As a first year teacher, fresh out of college, I was confronted with a challenge that so many new teachers face every year—the reality that my students had checked out of school a long time ago. Many of them had never read a book from cover-to-cover. Nor did they intend to. And they didn’t see how school had any relevance in their lives.
In the minds of most of my students, school was not relevant to their daily struggles: poverty, the threat of gang violence, drugs, juvenile hall, or worse yet, funerals. My students looked at me and thought there was no way I could understand what it was like to be hungry, to have a father in prison or a mother who had to work three jobs just to put food on the table.
I remember one of my students, Maria, walking in on the first day wearing an ankle monitor around her leg, and a parole officer by her side. She was throwing up her gang signs in the back of the class, carving her initials on her desk and making it very clear that she was miserable. Her goal was to make me as miserable as she was. I was determined to get her to record her story, in the hopes that maybe she could rewrite her own ending.