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Tuesday, September 21, 2010

UNCP opens Speaker Series with Erin Gruwell

Once upon a time, a 23-year-old, rookie teacher walked into a classroom with 150 of America’s most hopeless children from gang-infested communities.

Erin GruwellShe connected with them emotionally, and they read books, wrote in journals and went to college. Their story is in a book and a movie starring Hillary Swank.

It’s not a dream when you hear Erin Gruwell tell it as she did on September 15 in the Givens Performing Arts Center. The educator and author was the first installment of UNC Pembroke’s Distinguished Speaker Series.

Gruwell got a standing ovation before and after she spoke from approximately 700 fans that included a contingent of high school students. The audience was mesmerized for nearly two hours as she told the story of what happened on Room 203 of Long Beach High School.

During the question and answer period one of the high school students asked: “Would you mind coming to teach at Lumberton High School?”

To start the questions, Gruwell dared one of the youngest audience members to ask her a question. Her challenge resulted in: “Would you do it all over again?”

“Yes and no,” she answered. “I didn’t know what I was doing; I was an ordinary person with extraordinary kids.

“Now, I find the kids I love the most are the kids in juvenile hall,” she continued. “That’s where I feel closest to heaven. Those kids don’t have a voice, and I want to give them one.”

Erin GruwellGruwell said the kids in her California classroom quickly learned to hate “Ms. G,” as they called her. A conversation with the school principal revealed her classes were the worst in the school, and the only expectation was that they drop out before taking year-end standardized tests.

Gruwell dug in and purchased books for the entire class.

“They hated reading, they hated writing and they hated each other,” she said. As one student pointed out: “Why do we always have to read books by dead white guys in tights?’”

The kids had built a hard shell around themselves from a life of hard knocks. As another student said: “I’ve been to more friends’ funerals than birthday parties.”

“It’s easier to be the class clown because it’s better to get people to laugh with you than at you,” Gruwell said. “It’s better to be in on the joke than the object of it.”

Gruwell’s plan was to get her kids to tell their stories. It began with a toast.

“It was a toast to change .. to wipe the slate clean,” she said. “One by one, they picked up the champagne glasses and said they were tired a being poor, tired of being picked on and tired of living in a war zone.”

A ray of hope broke out in Room 203. They vowed to avoid gangs, finish high, not get pregnant and to succeed in life.

Books were read, stories were written and turned into a bestseller titled “Freedom Writer’s Diary: How a Teacher and 150 Teens Used Writing to Change Themselves and the World Around Them.” The students continue to communicate with Ms. G, and they continue to be successful.

“Something happened; they changed,” Gruwell said. “They realized they could break the cycle.

“Every kid deserves a second and a third chance,” she concluded.

After the question and answer session, the line for Gruwell to sign books ran out of the auditorium.

The Distinguished Speaker Series continues on November 29 with American Indian actor Adam Beach; on February 21 with Judy Shepard of The Laramie Project; and on April 26 with actor Bill Harper. Admissions is free.

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