Violence and death are so present in many of Ms. Gruwell’s students’ lives that, when they read about Anne Frank and Zlata Filipović’s experiences in war-torn countries, many of them feel that they, too, are suffering from an undeclared war—one made of domestic abuse and gang violence, where death can strike at any moment. Through Ms. Gruwell’s teaching, though, students become empowered about their capacity to break the cycle of violence. Inspired by the ideal of self-reliance, they realize that transforming themselves can be a powerful tool to reduce the harm around them—as well as the harm they suffer within themselves. While learning to stand up to violence and injustice takes a lot of practice, the Freedom Writers commit to becoming responsible individuals, ready to take a stand against violence in the world.
For many of Ms. Gruwell’s students, death and violent are intrinsic aspects of their life. At school and in their neighborhood, they are confronted to a violence over which they seem to have no control. Ms. Gruwell discovers the pervasive environment of death that some of her students are immersed in: “When I asked one of my freshmen if he thought he’d graduate, he said. ‘Graduate? Hell, I don't even know if I’ll make it to my sixteenth birthday!’ To some of these kids, death seems more real than a diploma.”
The students soon discover that they are not the only ones in this situation. When they read Anne Frank and Zlata Filipović’s diaries, they become aware that what they experience on a daily basis can also be called an undeclared “war.” Their war happens in the streets, through the constant murders of innocent people, as well as at home. Recalling domestic violence in her home, one student explains: “Although not quite like the war Hitler started, the war in my house was also created by ignorance and stupidity. Like all wars, there is an enemy. There are innocent victims, destruction, senseless violence, displacement, and a winner and a loser.”
In Ms. Gruwell’s class, the students become empowered to think about breaking cycles of violence in their own, small ways. Learning to trust in their instincts about justice and proving that they are “self-reliant” become important goals. In practice, however, standing up to violence is often difficult to achieve on the first try, as such a courageous action requires not only conviction, but also practice. During a day full of racial tensions and fights at school, one of Ms. Gruwell’s students sees a young boy violently beaten by twenty other boys for being Hispanic. Fearful of being beaten up himself, the student finds himself incapable of doing anything to protect the boy. “If Ms. G finds out that I just stood by and did nothing, she’ll really be pissed at me. After all, I wasn’t being very ‘self-reliant.’ I just hope she doesn’t find out.” Even though Ms. Gruwell has not necessarily prepared her class for all the unpredictable, violent situations in life such as this one, this student’s fear that his teacher might find out about his inaction demonstrates the powerful sense of personal accountability that she has instilled in her students.
The students’ sense of accountability toward Ms. Gruwell, themselves, and the larger Freedom Writers group increasingly encourages them to reflect on the best behavior they could adopt in the face of adversity. One Freedom Writer, a senior member of a sorority, finds herself appalled at the cruel hazing that young freshmen have to endure. She feels guilty at letting abusive actions take place under her very eyes, while she is herself a member of this sorority. As a Freedom Writer, she feels that she should stand up to defend those who are being humiliated. In the end, while she does not act in the moment of hazing itself, she ultimately decides to leave the sorority, deciding that she will not stand by while other endure injustice and humiliation. The sense of belonging to a worthy cause—the Freedom Writers—gives her the strength and sense of responsibility necessary to act in the name of her ideals.
Therefore, while the students might not be able to eradicate all the violence around them, the Freedom Writers experience allows them to shift their attitude from utter hopelessness to the belief that impacting one’s own life can be sufficient to enact change. During freshman year, one of Ms. Gruwell’s students says, about gang violence: “so our reasons might be stupid, but it’s still going on, and who am I to try to change things?” His view that he, as an isolated individual, could never go against the violence he grew up in, expresses his frustration with the brutal reality he has always known, but also underestimates his own power to change both himself and his community. Indeed, while neither Ms. Gruwell nor her students succeeded in putting an end to gang violence and domestic abuse, they to become leaders in their life and in their community, transmitting the positive transformation they experienced. Ultimately, all Freedom Writers graduated from high school and many of them became successful role models in their community, able to inspire other young students to escape the whirlpool of violence they grew up in—using tolerance, self-trust, and education as the foundation for non-violence.
Violence, War, and Death ThemeTracker
Violence, War, and Death Quotes in The Freedom Writers Diary
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]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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.