Freedom Writers Diary Turns Journaling Into Activism

by Jerry Waxler

Read my book, Memoir Revolution, about how turning your life into a story can change the world.

The Freedom Writers Diary is a collection of diary entries written by inner-city high school kids in Los Angeles. When I first heard about it, I thought the book would be too scattered and too youthful to have anything to do with memoir writing. After I started reading, I discovered these authors were doing essentially the same thing any memoir writer does; telling stories about their lives, and sharing them with the world.

I was stunned by the intensity of their circumstances. In the classroom, the kids separated themselves into racially defined groups – Hispanics, Blacks, Asians, and Whites.  Out on the street, many were members of rival gangs, killing and being killed for the color of their skin. Most of them had been shot at, and almost all had lost at least one friend to gang violence. The cultural tension portrayed a more complicated view of the American Melting Pot than I ever knew, and highlighted the terrible tendency of human beings to group together with their “own kind” and to exclude and misunderstand “the other.”

This particular classroom was designated for the throwaway kids, the ones who would never make it. Their home life was racked by poverty and drugs, and broken families. Some had been evicted and a few had even been homeless. When Erin Gruwell, a new teacher fresh out of college, walked into her English class, two things seemed obvious to everyone but her. First, these kids would continue their murderous hatred for each other, and second, none of them would graduate high school.

Through her innovative use of literature and journal writing, the young teacher defied both of these predictions, offering her students opportunities to escape their apparent fate. They raised their test scores, crossed racial lines to form deep friendships, finished high school and went on to college.

Uses of Journaling

To try to overcome their initial hostility to her and to each other, Erin Gruwell asked them to write about their personal lives. She had no idea she was turning on a spigot that released a flood of revelation and sharing. Through the writing, members of the class opened up to each other, breaking out of rigidly defined racial identities.

The journey to tolerance was helped by Gruwell’s use of world literature, especially the recollections of the Holocaust as seen through the eyes of another diarist, Anne Frank. After reading Anne Frank’s diary, the students realized they were not the only ones persecuted. The Holocaust’s impact on the kids was so strong, Gruwell wanted to teach them more. She took them to the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles, and she introduced them to several Holocaust Survivors. By visiting these horrors of recent history, they began to open their eyes to the futility and horror of racial hatred.

Shakespeare helped, too. The kids thought it was stupid that the two feuding families in Romeo and Juliet would kill each other merely for being born with the wrong name. Then Gruwell pointed out the similarities to their own situation. They made the connection and learned another lesson about prejudice.

After four years of sharing their stories with each other, working together to raise money for educational projects, and becoming avid students of the literature of tolerance and survival, these kids traded in their hatred for harmony. Over and over they use the word “family” to describe their feelings for their fellow classmates.

The Power of Sharing Private Experience

Now that their diary entries have been published, the rest of the world can share their moral journey, too. Like the shape-shifters in magical myths, they tear off the masks of gang bangers, of druggies and anti-social kids who will never amount to anything, and reveal real people, with real dreams for family and a safe society. Their experience makes me dream of the possibilities.

After they graduated, the book ended but the kids kept pushing their agenda. Using the public awareness generated by the book, Gruwell and the Freedom Writers formed a non-profit organization, the Freedom Writers Foundation, to bring the message of hope to other schools.

Their public relations campaign shifted into high gear when the Freedom Writers experience was produced as a movie starring Hilary Swank. The production moved me as deeply as the book did, and will extend the reach of their message even farther, proving this amazing lesson about memoir writing. By telling the story of our own lives, we reach beyond ourselves, sharing experiences that potentially help other people grow, turning private lives into a public act of social change.

Writing Prompts
Write a situation in which you felt empathy for someone who was on the other side of some wall, contained behind the boundaries of your pre-judgment. Write what it felt like before the connection was established, and then what it felt like as the wall started to crumble and you saw the real person beyond it.

Consider some interaction you have had with a person from the “wrong” race or religion. Tell a story about your interaction. Stretch your imagination and try to tell the same story from their point of view.

Write about a period in your life when you felt stuck behind a façade, in which others saw you differently than you saw yourself. Write a story about taking off that mask.

Write a story about a book that made a difference in your life.

Write a story about a teacher who made a difference in your life.
Notes

The Freedom Writers Diary : How a Teacher and 150 Teens Used Writing to Change Themselves and the World Around Them, by Freedom Writers, Zlata Filipovic, with Erin Gruwell

Freedom Writers Foundation

Read my essay “The Terrible Logic of Uncivilized Boys” about Mark Salzman’s creative writing class inside a juvenile detention center for gang members in Los Angeles,

More memoir writing resources

To see brief descriptions and links to all the essays on this blog, click here.

To order my short, step-by-step how-to guide to write your memoir, click here.

To learn more about my self=help book about overcoming the psychological obstacles to writing, click here.

Three writing prompts to flesh in memories

by Jerry Waxler, author of Memoir Revolution: Write Your Story, Change the World

When I explore my memories of adolescence, one of two things happens. Either I draw a blank or I land on a random bit of my past that contributes little to my memoir. Darn that mind. Why can’t I just sit down and develop the story of me? To move past this impasse and extract relevant information from the confusing cloud of memories, I rely on a series of writing prompts.

Writing Prompt 1: To learn about a scene, pick a detail and stretch

I want to remember high school which is hard for me because that whole period is foggy. I’ve found that if I have one fact, I can start from there and extend my memory from one fact to the next. So I stir the pot and a single image floats by – home room, where a teacher took attendance, made announcements, and then sent us on our way. I remember nothing. Then I see one person. I sat next to a guy named Wanenchak. But I don’t remember anything about him. Well, I do remember a little. He was trim, had light hair, and was a nice guy. Bit by bit, one fact leads to another, putting words and descriptions on hazy times. Wanenchak was Greek Orthodox. I didn’t know what that meant so I asked him. That’s one more fact about him, and it also divulges an interesting fact about me. I was terribly withdrawn, so the fact that I remember his religion tells me that despite my lack of attention to fellow classmates, I was interested in this dimension. While the exercise has not yet burst open the doors to an unforgettable scene, it did yield some raw material I didn’t have when I started.

Writing prompt 2: List key events, transitions, and influences
Even though high school feels vague, if I step back and scan those four years, highlights emerge from the haze. These noteworthy facts don’t in themselves tell a story, but they add to my understanding and perhaps will provide valuable raw material. Here’s a list I developed by looking for major events.

  • Influential teachers: Mr. Warshaw, my ninth grade math teacher started me on a path of love for math, and Mr. Hofkin, the science teacher in my senior year, established my curiosity about physics.
  • Sports: I never played any ball sports, but since I was an incessant walker, I hoped I could survive the rigors of track. I was wrong. A few weeks of waking up before dawn to train for track and field I had to drop out with excruciating shin splints.
  • My failure to stick with the English honors program: Despite my passion for reading, I never really understood what English teachers were trying to get me to do, so while I remained in the math and science honors class I was excluded from English. This always made me feel like an outsider.
  • Crash! I went on two dates in four years. One of my two dates ended in a car crash when I was so distracted I ran a red light.

Writing Prompt 3: To find the framework, look for desire
To create a story worth reading, I’m going to need emotions. I can’t write about romance. I didn’t have any. It was an all-boys high school and I worked every weekend at my dad’s drugstore. Where else can I look for drama? I ask myself, “What did I want?” and in answer, I see my two friends, Joe and Ed. I desperately wanted to be accepted by these guys. So I try to find scenes that represent my desire.

Joe was a strikingly handsome soccer player, and second in our all academic school. His dad was a steelworker, and the large family lived in a small row home, three kids to a room. One day in the lunch room, without provocation or warning, Joe threw a glass of chocolate milk on my clean white shirt. Standing there feeling defiled, with the brown liquid soaking into my chest, I searched his face for some clue that might explain why he had done it. Instead of apologizing, he seemed amused and curious, as if he was studying my response.

In another scene, I was in my kitchen at home talking to my friend Ed on the phone. We all lived pretty far away from each other because Central High in Philadelphia was a citywide school, and kids commuted there from all over the city. Ed was a Jewish intellectual who was becoming increasingly committed to his religion. He had asked me what I believed in, and I didn’t offer a clear enough answer. He told me I was worthless because I don’t believe in something enough to die for it. I started to cry.

These scenes are more than interesting moments. They build the framework of a story about three 16 year old boys trying to use their developing intellect to understand the morality of life. I’m ahead of Joe. At least I don’t need to experiment to find out what it feels like to hurt a friend. But I’m not yet up to Ed. Even though his delivery is cruel, he’s right. I haven’t yet figured out what I believe.

***

Out my hazy memories of high school I unearth more and more raw material, and begin to see a structure. This is the power of writing prompts. They stimulate thoughts along a particular line, and shake loose a variety of memories and ideas I didn’t even realize were in there. I brainstorm at the detail level to describe characters and settings. I brainstorm highlights, the main events that provide substance. And to find the emotion that propels me through those events I look for desire. Gradually I begin to gather the pieces of a compelling story.

For brief descriptions and links to other posts on Memory Writers Network, click here.