Wow. What an awesome movie. Hilary Swank stars as Erin Gruwell, an idealistic novice teacher in Long Beach, CA, in the early 90s. Erin can’t wait to tackle her first teaching assignment, despite warnings of how difficult it is by more experienced staff members.
Erin’s class consists of several different ethnic groups–Latinos, African Americans, Asians, and one white student. Many of them are gang members, and from underprivileged neighborhoods where you can get shot just stepping outside your house or apartment. They hate each other and understand perfectly well that the school system doesn’t actually expect them to learn anything, much less graduate. School is a holding pen for them until they get old enough to drop out. So they don’t bother participating in class much, despite Erin’s tenacity in using various methods to try to engage them.
Then a Latina gang member in Erin’s class witnesses a gang shooting. Erin uses that and a racist cartoon drawn by one of the class members as teaching aids that not only engage them and improve their academics, but help the students make sense of their lives. She encourages them to journal every day, to tell their own stories. She teaches them about the Holocaust and how the hate that fueled it relates to their own situation, their undeclared war on the streets. She raises funds herself to take them to the Holocaust Museum and introduces them to Holocaust survivors. She gets them to read The Diary of Anne Frank, which is a big deal in itself, given that many of these kids had never learned to read well. The class even raises funds to have Miep Gies (Patsy Carroll), the woman who hid the Frank family, come and speak to the class. It was touching how one of the students asked specifically if he could be the one to escort her into the classroom. When a student tells Miep that she is his hero, she replies that no, she is not a hero. She just did what she had to do.
This is a movie that will bring tears to your eyes. There are so many touching scenes. In one such scene, a boy reads from his journal on the first day of his sophomore year. Erin had been his teacher since he was a freshman. In his journal, he had written that his summer had been the worst summer of his life, because he and his mother had been evicted from his apartment. His mother kept apologizing to him, and he was thinking he should have asked for something less expensive for Christmas. He had no home, and he didn’t see the point in coming to school, but he came anyway. The first class on his schedule was Ms. Gruwell’s (Erin’s) class. He had had her the previous year and gotten to know and like her. A couple of the kids from the class had greeted him, and he realized that he was home.
This movie perfectly illustrates the power of public education. Many of these kids who went on to graduate from high school were the first in their families to do so. They didn’t just learn academics, though their academics did improve significantly, and that is of course very important. In helping them make sense of their lives, their teacher gave them the power to break the cycle of hate and violence and improve their lives.