The family life of Ms. Gruwell’s students impacts them well beyond the boundaries of their home. While some students benefit from strong parent support and feel encouraged to pursue their education, many others struggle with difficult family situations which affect their performance at school. Missing or uncaring parents, domestic abuse, and homelessness all leave a toll on students’ well-being, affecting their sense of self-confidence and their motivation to succeed academically. While Ms. Gruwell cannot directly solve the students’ problems at home, she succeeds in creating a classroom where all students feel included and loved. As the bonds between the Freedom Writers and their teacher grow, many students find in this group a substitute family, capable of providing them with the support, care, and motivation they so desperately need.
The family situation in which students find themselves plays a crucial role in their health, safety, and sense of self-worth. Positive and negative experiences at home impact their vision of success at school. In the Afterword, where some students recount what has happened to them since high school, the author of Diary 8 explains that his mom has been the most important stabilizing force in his life. As an adolescent, he abruptly left his home, in an act of anger and rebellion, but later repented and returned home, assuring his mother that he had changed for the better. Instead of turning him down, his mother took him in, thus saving him from the perils of homelessness. This served as a turning point in the young boy’s life, as he realized that the bond he shares with his mother is unbreakable, and that she will never give up on him. This motivated him to change and become a more responsible son, ready to behave well at home and at school.
Other, less fortunate students find themselves in situations where their family stifles their growth and undermines their self-confidence. Judging from the relatively poor attendance at a “Back to School Night” during Freshman year, Ms. Gruwell notes that some parents seem to have given up on their children’s education entirely. Throughout the years, many students’ diary entries chronicle their lives at home marked by neglect and various forms of abuse. Some have to deal with fathers who are either uncaring, imprisoned, or have abandoned them. Others are forced to witness the beatings that their mothers suffer at the hands of a boyfriend or husband. Others, finally, are sexually assaulted by family members who had previously seemed worthy of trust. The lack of strong role models leaves them unable to imagine what a successful, healthy life might look like. These experiences take a severe emotional toll on the adolescents, whose instability at home often translates into precarious academic performance.
Some students even find themselves without a stable home, and students in extreme situations of poverty and homelessness are often excluded from any kind of comfort, both at school and outside of school. These situations leave a deep mark in students’ psyches, often affecting them for the rest of their life. Many students find themselves without a place to call home. Some are evicted from their homes and forced to live on the floor of a stranger’s house or in the street. Others are separated from their siblings and placed in foster homes by social services. These students generally feel that their private lives are so torn apart that they have no stable place to call their own, where they might feel safe and cared for.
School life can heighten their sense of exclusion, as cruel teachers do not hesitate to humiliate their most vulnerable students. In the Afterword, one Freedom Writer recalls living in a mobile home at a gas station and not having enough money to eat anything but Vienna sausages and cheap bread. Instead of finding comfort at school, she feels judged and excluded. A teacher berates the student—who does not have regular access to a shower—by calling her “dirty” in front of the entire class and telling her that she should be able to buy soap. The pain of these experiences remains vivid as an adult, as the former high school student recounts that, even today, “[e]very time I tell my story, I reopen the wound and relive my childhood. What helps me persevere is […] when I look into the audience and recognize the familiar pain in someone’s face as he or she connects to my story.”
To help her students deal with life at school and outside of school, Ms. Gruwell aims for classroom 203 to become a space where students can feel safe and cared for. By encouraging them to share their personal experiences, she helps them reduce the pain and humiliation they might feel. Students with troubled lives at home come to realize that the Freedom Writers provide a family of their own, capable of bringing emotional and academic support to those who might need it.
Ms. Gruwell succeeds in making the Freedom Writers a self-sufficient, powerful support group. She encourages all students to cooperate with each other and, most importantly, to support each other’s various endeavors. When, during a field trip, a student who has always suffered from body-image issues takes part in a dancing circle, she finds that she is accepted and cheered on by her fellow Freedom Writers, none of whom judges her for her weight. When a Freedom Writer is elected Senior Class President, she basks in the support of the entire class. Around graduation time, when various Freedom Writers get admitted to the universities they wanted, they are cheered on by the rest of the class. In sum, throughout their time at school, the Freedom Writers constitute a support group where students can feel accepted, regardless of their identity, appearance, or background. It allows everyone to share their academic achievements as well as their deepest emotional problems and insecurities.
As a result, many students come to regard Ms. Gruwell’s class as a family, able to complement or replace what is missing from their actual lives outside of school. As one student concludes: “The Freedom Writers filled this huge hole I had by giving me a safe place where I always knew someone cared. […] Losing these people would be like losing a part of my family.”
Family and Home ThemeTracker
Family and Home Quotes in The Freedom Writers Diary
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.