September 5–Teacher’s Day in India is marked by awards, articles, and essays remembering and honouring those who instruct and inspire. Across the world, and across generations, there have been many who have left behind their legacy on the young minds and lives. Films and books have tried to capture some of this in their own small way.
A film that I saw recently was a new addition to this list of ‘must watch and must read’. Freedom Writers tells the story of an idealistic young teacher confronted with the challenge of teaching ‘unteachable, at-risk’ students, and her non-conformist attempts at making meaningful connections.
The movie is based on the real experiences of Erin Gruwell that she documented in a book titled The Freedom Writers Diary: How a Teacher and 150 Teens Used Writing to Change Themselves and the World Around Them. The book was published in 1999.
Erin was a 23-year-old white American when she stepped into her classroom of a motley group of African American and Latino teenagers coming from a world of broken homes, violence, and every form of social, cultural and economic discrimination. Instead of giving up, and simply labelling her charges as ‘unteachable’, Erin realised that these young people were deprived of exposure, attention and respect. One way to open up their vision and world was to introduce them to writings that shared similar histories of discrimination, beginning with The Diary of Anne Frank, and Zlata’s Diary: A Child’s Life in Sarajevo, and including a visit to the Holocaust Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles. Despite initial resistance, the students began to see the parallels between these books and events in history, and their own lives; they realised that they were not alone in their struggles. Erin then moved on to encouraging every student to keep a journal in which they recorded their thoughts and feelings about their past, present and future.
The students were so inspired by Anne Frank’s story that they organised a “Read-a-thon for Tolerance” and collected funds to invite Miep Gies, the Dutch woman who sheltered Anne Frank’s family, to visit them in California during the 1994/1995 school year. Miep declared that Erin Gruwell’s students were “the real heroes”. As a testament to Erin’s dauntless efforts, all 150 Freedom Writers graduated from high school and many went on to attend college—a hitherto unachieved triumph.
The book The Freedom Writers Diary is a compilation of the journals kept by these students. Its title The Freedom Writers is a tribute to the name of the 1960s US civil rights group called Freedom Riders. Erin’s book was a huge success. She went on to set up The Freedom Writers Foundation, which functions to promote Erin’s successful teaching methods.
The film brought to mind another path-breaking movie To Sir, With Love. Released in 1967, this is also based on an autobiographical novel by E.R. Braithwaite which recounts his experiences as a teacher in London. In this case, it was the challenge of a teacher of colour teaching a class of white, economically and socially-deprived teenagers in a working-class area of London. Facing similar challenges of teaching a set curriculum to semi-literate and disinterested, hostile students, Braithwaite took on the challenge by switching to unconventional teaching methods including visits to museums, and allowing students to discuss what was meaningful to them, in the class. Like Erin, he broke through the barriers, and succeeded where others had thrown up their hands in despair.
Inspiring films both. Also a reminder that, in any time and place, a single individual can make a big difference. A tribute to every teacher, who in his or her own way, touches countless minds and hearts, and changes lives.