The day before starting the school year as an English teacher at Wilson High School, Erin Gruwell reflects on the expectations she has of her job. Although Long Beach, where the school is located, has the reputation of being a hot spot for gang- and drug-related violence, Wilson is located in a safe neighborhood, and students who live in the so-called “hood” have to take multiple buses to get to school. Erin is excited about the socio-economic and cultural diversity of students that attend this school. At the same time, she notes that, since the Rodney King Riots, racial tension has been palpable in the school.
Erin’s excitement at her school’s diversity reflects her powerful, idealistic vision of inter-racial and inter-cultural cooperation—an ideal she will work hard to make her entire class achieve. This idealism keeps her from recognizing the full extent of the inequality that characterizes Long Beach’s ethnic diversity—both within and outside the school—as students from poor, minority backgrounds are discriminated against and often deeply misunderstood.
Erin recounts the previous year, when she was still a student teacher. Despite her efforts to make the classroom a color-blind space where differences between Asians, Latinos and African Americans (the majority of the student body) would not matter, she is soon forced to confront racial animosity inside the classroom. One day, one of her students draws a racist caricature of Sharaud, a black student, portraying him with large, protruding lips. Sharaud—a disciplinary transfer who was particularly intimidating and tough—is so upset when he sees the drawing that he breaks into tears.
Sharaud’s emotional reaction to the racist drawing is unexpected, given his background of violence and intimidation. This episode reflects the deep, insidious power that racism can have even on the seemingly toughest individuals. It also reveals the possibility that even the most unruly students can show their vulnerability—and, in that moment, potentially change, opening up to learning something new in the classroom.
When Ms. Gruwell discovers what happened, she becomes furious and tells her students that such stereotyping is unacceptable and that caricatures of this kind lead to such horrific events as the Holocaust. Soon, however, she discovers that most of her students don’t know what the Holocaust is. She decides to use this episode as a teaching opportunity, inspiring her to focus her curriculum on tolerance and history. She buys new books and organizes field trips so that her students feel personally engaged in learning world history. In order to finance these activities, she works two extra jobs, at Nordstrom (a department store) and the Marriott Hotel.
Ms. Gruwell’s decision to adapt her lesson plans after what happened in the classroom shows that her goal is not to force a rigid curriculum upon her students but, rather to make them feel engaged with the learning process itself, allowing what they learn to relate to their personal experiences. Her dedication to her job expresses itself beyond the classroom as well, as she sacrifices her own free time for her students’ benefit, demonstrating courage and self-sacrifice.
On one occasion, when Ms. Gruwell brings her class to see Schindler’s List at a movie theater where the audience is upper-class and white, the audience reacts with violent hostility to her diverse group of students. One of Ms. Gruwell’s neighbors calls black people monkeys and tells her to marry one. The audience’s reaction is so extreme that a local newspaper reports the incident.
Ms. Gruwell has to fight racial hostility outside the classroom as well as within it. The audience’s reaction demonstrates many people’s prejudicial beliefs about members of another racial group, as they identify Ms. Gruwell’s diverse group as a potential threat, automatically linking racial difference with danger and violence.
After the news article is published, Thomas Keneally, the author of the book that inspired the movie Schindler’s List, invites Ms. Gruwell and her students to one of his university seminars—after which they receive an invitation from Steven Spielberg himself, the director of the movie. Ms. Gruwell recalls that these artists were highly impressed by Ms. Gruwell’s class, admiring the students’ striking cultural and ethnic diversity as well as their academic achievements.
The interest that these famous artists take in Ms. Gruwell’s group shows that not all of society is racist and prejudiced, but that Ms. Gruwell can also count on the support of powerful allies outside the classroom. The two men’s positive impression of Ms. Gruwell’s class is a testament to the class’s success, confirming that Ms. Gruwell’s teaching method is bearing fruit.
Despite these obvious successes, the school administration was hostile to these new developments and decided to separate Ms. Gruwell from her students the next year, arguing that Ms. Gruwell didn’t yet have seniority to teach whomever she wanted. As a result, she now finds herself getting ready to teach an entirely new group of students: freshmen who have been labeled “at risk” and whom nobody else wants to teach. Inspired by her experience with such a difficult student as Sharaud, however, Ms. Gruwell optimistically trusts that she can teach anyone.
The school’s hostility to Ms. Gruwell’s achievements reveals that not all educators are devoted to her vision of innovative learning and cross-cultural solidarity. This is demonstrated in the very fact that the school has given up on some of its students, defining them in terms of their inability to learn and behave in the classroom. However, as Ms. Gruwell learned with Sharaud, teaching difficult students requires finding their weak spots, since these are the very spots where one can begin to break through their shell.