When Ms. Gruwell’s students read the novel Durango Street, about Rufus, an African-American boy who spent time in juvenile hall, most students in the class can relate to the protagonist, since many have experienced jail personally or through family and friends.
Ms. Gruwell attempts to make her students feel personally engaged in the act of learning. Choosing novels where characters look like her students or have shared similar experiences is the first step in this process.
Before reading this book, this student felt ashamed of having gone to jail. During junior year, when he was attacked by a group of boys, he defended himself by hitting back, wildly kicking and hitting one of the attackers until he realized the boy was seriously wounded. When he was sent to the principal’s office, no one was home to come pick him up at school, so he was sent to juvenile hall. There, he was treated like a criminal and surrounded by violent inmates who scared him.
This student’s experience with the criminal system seems deeply unfair, as he is punished for defending himself against violence and for having no one at home to come pick him up. This effectively transforms the student’s vulnerability into guilt, making him responsible for situations over which he does not have full control.
He was only able to contact his parents on the third day and ended up staying in prison for five days, which felt endless and unbearable. When he finally got out, he still felt locked up. He had to do some community service and pay compensation to the boy he injured. Since then, however, he has vowed to—and succeeded in—staying out of trouble.
The time it takes the student to contact his parents signals a relative lack of family support in his life, as it appears that his parents didn’t even worry about their son’s whereabouts. The student’s good will is evident in his decision to avoid violence in the future, suggesting that his imprisonment was not the result of his own malice, but of unfortunate circumstances.