This student explains that, during an activity in which students had to self-evaluate their work, he gave himself an “F.” He has had to skip school to take care of his sick mom, and feels that Ms. Gruwell should punish him for this. When Ms. Gruwell sees what he has written, she becomes furious, takes him aside, and yells at him that his self-evaluation is unacceptable. She sees his answer as a rude dismissal of himself and of everyone who cares about him. She tells him that, until he actually tells her to stop caring about him, she refuses to fail him and will make sure he completes his homework.
The student’s answer is not meant as direct provocation but, rather, is an expression of low self-esteem. However, Ms. Gruwell interprets it as an attack against her own teaching. She puts a lot of effort into believing in her students’ abilities so that they will believe in themselves.
The student, shocked and on the verge of tears after Ms. Gruwell’s reaction, finds motivation in his teacher’s speech. He realizes that, to be truly self-reliant, he should stop relying on excuses about his circumstances and, instead, see obstacles as something to defeat, turning his weaknesses into strengths.
Ms. Gruwell’s angry speech is not meant as a punishment but, instead, as a wake-up call, encouraging the student to trust in his own strength in the same way that she trusts in him. This deep commitment she demonstrates to the student’s success is what encourages him to change.