By Debbi Beldon – Experient
Recently I had the pleasure of reading one of my colleagues, Brenda Houlihan’s Blog entry about her experience meeting Walter Cronkite and it inspired me to share my own personal brush with fame.
My story begins in June of 2005 while on-site in one of my favorite cities, Philadelphia, for a large, education association Annual Meeting. Our jobs provide us the opportunity to see many interesting speakers and celebrities, but I have to admit that usually once I get the room loaded, I’m off to the next task and rarely stick around to listen to the presentation. That day in June, I assumed the same thing would happen as I got the room ready and all the attendees in their seats to hear the author of the book “The Freedom Writers Diary: How a Teacher and 150 Teens Used Writing to Change Themselves and the World Around Them” – Erin Gruwell. The presentation opened with a video clip from an interview Erin had done, and by the time the clip was finished I was hooked. There was no way I could leave the room.
For those of you unfamiliar with Erin’s story, she began student teaching in 1994 in California. As a student teacher, she was assigned the lowest-performing students in the school. Many were from broken homes, had family members in jail or had even served time themselves. A few months into the school year, she intercepted a note one of her other students passed in class with a racist drawing on it. Infuriated, Gruwell told the class that that was the type of caricature that the Nazis had used during the Holocaust. When only one of the students knew what the Holocaust was, Gruwell changed the theme of her curriculum to tolerance. Gruwell took the students to see Schindler’s List, bought new books out of her own pocket and invited guest speakers.
The following year, Gruwell persevered, and reached her students by asking them to make movies of their lives, keep journals, and relating the family feud in Romeo and Juliet to a gang war. She also had the students read books written by and about other teenagers in times of war, such as The Diary of a Young Girl, Zlata’s Diary and Night. Writing journals became a solace for many of the students, and because the journals were shared anonymously, teenagers who once refused to speak to someone of a different race became like a family.
In the fall of 1995, Gruwell gave each of her students a bag full of new books and had them make a toast for change. After that, she saw a turnaround in them. The students, who school administrators had thought were not intelligent enough to read higher-level books and were destined to drop out, went on to shock everyone. All 150 Freedom Writers graduated from high school and many went on to attend college. *
But the story doesn’t end there. This year while on-site for the same conference, Erin was scheduled to be the closing keynote speaker. I did something that I have never, ever done before and I asked the Executive Director of the association for a personal favor. Nervous and shaking a bit, I asked her if there was any way possible I could meet Erin. The Executive Director thankfully was happy to oblige my request. I sat near the back of the room at the start the closing session (my radio pressed close to my ear in case I was needed elsewhere) and listened while the Executive Director introduced Erin. She spoke of a member of the Conference Staff who was not an educator that had heard Erin speak in 2005 and was blown away by her story of hope and conviction. She went on and on and I realized she was talking about me! She actually said my name and hoped she wasn’t embarrassing me.
Near the end of the speech, I moved up to the front of the room where the Executive Director was sitting as I had been instructed to and just before Erin finished speaking; she and I ducked behind the stage. When Erin came off the stage, she ran right over to me, gave me a hug, and said that she had been so moved by my story. MY STORY? Was she kidding? We were both crying a little and it was by far my most exciting on-site experience ever.
If you haven’t read the book “The Freedom Writers Diary: How a Teacher and 150 Teens Used Writing to Change Themselves and the World Around Them” or seen the movie, I highly recommend them. Not being a teacher has no bearing on how moved I was by Erin’s story. I don’t think that I’m overstating it when I say hearing her speak changed my life. What she did proves that anything is possible and that one person can make a difference in the lives of many.
We are lucky that in our jobs we get to see and meet many famous people, but how often do you get to meet someone that’s just a hero?