I asked, “How many of you have heard of the Holocaust?” Not a single person raised his hand. Then I asked, “How many of you have been shot at?” Nearly every hand went up. I immediately decided to throw out my meticulously planned lessons and make tolerance the core of my curriculum. From that moment on, I would try to bring history to life by using new books, inviting guest speakers, and going on field trips.
Celie was violated, tormented, humiliated, degraded; yet through it all, she remained innocent! Out of all this horror, Celie was given courage. Courage to ask for more, to laugh, to love, and finally—to live. Now I’m certain who Celie is. Celie is and always has been me . . . and with this in mind, I will survive.
My P.O. hasn’t realized yet that schools are just like the city and the city is just like prison. All of them are divided into separate sections, depending on race. On the streets, you kick it in different ’hoods, depending on your race, or where you’re from. And at school, we separate ourselves from people who are different from us. That’s just the way it is, and we all respect that. So when the Asians started trying to claim parts of the ’hood, we had to set them straight.
I’m not afraid of anyone anymore. Now I’m my own gang. I protect myself. I got my own back. I still carry my gun with me just in case I run into some trouble, and now I’m not afraid to use it. Running with gangs and carrying a gun can create some problems, but being of a different race can get you into trouble, too, so I figure I might as well be prepared. Lately, a lot of shit’s been going down. All I know is that I'm not gonna be the next one to get killed.
I don’t know if I’m more frustrated with the students or the system. Although they’re a pain, they’re just kids. But adults created the system. The system separates them and then they’re stereotyped as “basic,” but in reality, they’re anything but basic. In many ways they’re extraordinary. […] It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that if you tell kids they’re stupid—directly or indirectly—sooner or later they start to believe it.
[I]t’s obvious that if you’re from a Latino gang you don’t get along with the Asian gang, and if you’re from the Asian gang, you don’t get along with the Latino gang. All this rivalry is more of a tradition. Who cares about the history behind it? Who cares about any kind of history? It’s just two sides who tripped on each other way back when and to this day make other people suffer because of their problems. Then I realized she was right, it’s exactly like that stupid play. So our reasons might be stupid, but it's still going on, and who am I to try to change things?
They say America is the “Land of the Free and Home of the
Brave,” but what’s so free about a land where people get killed? […] I am a fifteen-year-old teenage boy whose life seems to be similar to yours. In your diary you said you watched out for snipers and gunshots. I watch out for gangsters and gunshots. Your friends died of gunshots and my friend Richard, who was fifteen, and my cousin Matthew, who was nineteen, also died of gunshots. The strange thing is . . . my country is not in a war. (Or is it?)
“Do not let Anne’s death be in vain,” Miep said, using her words to bring it all together. Miep wanted us to keep Anne’s message alive, it was up to us to remember it. Miep and Ms. Gruwell had had the same purpose all along. They wanted us to seize the moment. Ms. Gruwell wanted us to realize that we could change the way things were, and Miep wanted to take Anne’s message and share it with the world.
I have always been taught to be proud of being Latina, proud of being Mexican, and I was. I was probably more proud of being a “label” than of being a human being, that’s the way most of us were taught. Since the day we enter this world we were a label, a number, a statistic, that’s just the way it is. Now if you ask me what race I am, like Zlata, I’ll simply say, “I’m a human being.”
When Zlata wrote about Bosnian children becoming the “soldiers” and the soldiers becoming “children,” at first I didn’t get her meaning. After hearing Tony’s story, I understood. In war the innocence of a child is lost, and though the soldiers fee I theirs is a worthy cause, they behave like children when trying to achieve their goals. Knowing that a grown man entered a child’s bedroom stealing his innocence makes me sad.
When I was born, the doctor must have stamped “National Spokesperson for the Plight of Black People” on my forehead; a stamp visible only to my teachers. The majority of my teachers treat me as if I, and I alone, hold the answers to the mysterious creatures that African Americans are, like I’m the Rosetta Stone of black people. It was like that until I transferred to Ms. Gruwell’s class. Up until that point it had always been: “So Joyce, how do black people feel about Affirmative Action?” Poignant looks follow. “Joyce, can you give us the black perspective on The Color Purple?”
What she showed me today is that a truly self-reliant person takes action, leaving nothing to chance and everything to themselves. She showed me that excuses will not bring about success and that adversity is not something you walk with, but something you leap over. The only obstacles are the ones you allow.
I think it’s about time men start respecting women, instead of degrading women to the point where it’s unbearable. I don’t know why women allow men to brainwash them and use their bodies as objects instead of cherishing them as if they were treasures. But it’s never going to change until women start respecting themselves more.
Zlata said writing was her salvation during the war and it kept her sane. She suggested that writing might be one of the best vehicles for some of my students to escape their horrific environments and personal demons. Even though they’re not held captive in an attic or dodging bombs in a basement, the violence permeating the streets is just as frightening—and just as real.
Besides gang violence, domestic violence or spousal abuse is common. So common, in fact, that people ignore it, turn the other cheek, or go back to bed. I have watched men pistol-whip their girlfriends or smash their heads through car windows. Damn! I have seen a lot of crazy stuff. Stuff that makes me thankful it’s not me. It’s easier for me to pretend I don’t live where I live or see what I see. […] Writing about my pain will only make it worse.
I believe that I will never again feel uncomfortable with a person of a different race. When I have my own children someday, the custom I was taught as a child will be broken, because I know it's not right. My children will learn how special it is to bond with another person who looks different but is actually just like them. All these years I knew something was missing in my life, and I am glad that I finally found it.
“I know why the caged bird sings.” For many people this might sound like a normal poem, but to me it’s an analogy of my life. I sometimes feel as if I am a bird without wings and the door on my cage is not open. A bird doesn’t sing because it’s happy, it sings because it’s not free.
Without the comfort of Room 203, they had to adjust to new environments and their newfound freedom. Initially the transition was difficult. Room 203 wasn't just a classroom, it was home, a safe haven. I realized that in order for them to grow, they had to branch out and explore new ground.
Although I’m not an expert on the subject, I’ve always felt that all kids yearn to rebel. Understanding this rebellious nature, I encouraged the Freedom Writers to use a pen as a means of revolution. Through their writing, they discovered they shared a common identity, which united them into a community that connected them, not separated them from the world. Unfortunately, the young men in Columbine didn’t share a community like the Freedom Writers. Instead, they were alone and on the fringe. Their cries for help fell on deaf ears. And rather than picking up a pen and finding a solution, they turned to guns and bombs instead.
I have faith in the system. I will continue to fight for change alongside students, teachers, and immigrants. And I will continue to write letters, attend political rallies, volunteer for campaigns, and collect voter registration forms, because that’s how the Freedom Riders enacted change—not just by challenging the system, but by working with it.
I hate going back to that place—the past, that is. I tried very hard to leave it behind me. Sometimes, I speak to adults who don’t know what it’s like; they just like our message. And I do the best I can, but I have to admit, going there hurts. I hate my former, abandoned-fourteen-year-old self, desperately seeking a reassuring hug. But if letting this student know everything is going to be okay means going to that place, it’s worth it.
In that mirror, I see a well-balanced person, someone who is accountable for his actions, has goals, and stands for something. I am someone my foster father is proud of, someone the Freedom Writers family is proud of, someone my spouse is proud of, someone my mother would be proud of, and, most important, someone I am proud of.
So today when the bell rings, I’ll think about the Freedom Writers and I’ll tell my students, “I know class is tough and so is life, but I’m a tough teacher who molds tough students.” Tough times don’t last; tough people do.
As I got older, people who heard my story would ask me how I dealt with the idea of death and dying. I would think about it for a minute and reply, “See, being poor, black, and living in the ghetto was kind of like a disease that I was born with, sort of like AIDS or cancer.” It was nothing I could control.