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Erin Gruwell graduated from Bonita High School in La Verne, but her undergrad studies took her to UC Irvine, and she later called Newport Beach home. She still recalls the "beautiful drive" along Pacific Coast Highway into Long Beach, where she would cut inland to reach her first teaching job at East Side LBC Woodrow Wilson High School in 1994.
"It was like two different worlds," Gruwell recalls from her north Long Beach home.
You likely know what happened next, thanks to her best-selling 1999 book, The Freedom Writers Diary: How a Teacher and 150 Teens Used Writing to Change Themselves and the World Around Them, and the 2007 feature film that spun out of the book, Freedom Writers with Hilary Swank.
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A movie dearer to Gruwell's heart is the uplifting new documentary Stories From an Undeclared War, which screens as part of the Newport Beach Film Festival—much to the delight of the former resident.
It wasn't supposed to work out this way. She intended to go on and study law after UCI, but instead, she got the education bug and her master's from that public-schools teacher factory known as Cal State Long Beach.
Hired to teach freshman English to so-called "at-risk" students who called the Springdale and Carmelita housing projects home, Gruwell was confronted by kids who "hated reading, they hated writing, and they hated each other. They hated me because I was so perky and annoying in my pearls. They thought, 'Who is this crazy lady from Newport Beach?' They wondered when I would run to the principal and ask to leave."
As we already know, Gruwell did not go anywhere. Directed by Dennis Rice, Stories From an Undeclared War shows Hollywood's Freedom Writers only tells part of the story.
We see students such as Maria Reyes, who arrived in class with an ankle monitor and a probation officer, openly hostile to Gruwell and the idea of reading andwriting. After striking out with Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet and the film West Side Story, Gruwell finally connects to Reyes and the rest with The Diary of Anne Frank and Zlata's Diary: A Child's Life in Wartime Sarajevo. The experience led to the documentary's title; years earlier, student Darrius Garrett said, "You know what, Ms. G? I feel like we came from an undeclared war zone."
The teacher went the extra mile by arranging for her students to meet young author Zlata Filipovic at the Newport Beach Marriott. After the Freedom Writers graduated, Gruwell went the extra, extra miles by arranging for them to revisit Filipovic in Sarajevo and to stand in Anne Frank's loft in Amsterdam. Gruwell not only stretched her public-teacher's salary to the max, but also leaned on family and friends for various fund-raisers, taught nights at National University, sold bras at Fashion Island's Nordstrom and worked the concierge desk at the Newport Beach Marriott, convincing her managers to put up Filipovic.
"My kids had never been to Newport Beach or a fancy hotel," Gruwell recalls. "To watch them meet this little refugee, the author of an international best-seller and an advocate for free speech, changed their lives. Knowing that Anne Frank wrote what she wrote and Zlata wrote what she wrote made them not only want to write, but also to be advocates."
They got their chance in Washington, D.C. , where the students are shown in Gruwell's favorite part of the documentary interacting with then-President Bill Clinton's Education Secretary Richard Riley. "They just feel they are these civil-rights leaders," Gruwell says with pride.
Her students were not only the first members of their families to graduate from high school, but many also got college degrees, and some work for Gruwell's nonprofit Freedom Writers Foundation, which helps teachers and students around the country. "Now, these kids are role models," she says. "When I look back at it, they changed me. There is just this beautiful full circle from where they started and where they ended up."
Speaking of full circles, there's another reason she appreciates her two-decades-in-the-making "labor of love" screening in Newport Beach. She took her students to the Lido Theatre to see Schindler's List and Hoop Dreams. In case you were wondering, yes, some of those Freedom Writers will return to Newport Beach to support their former teacher's film and participate in an audience Q&A. Gruwell hopes the discussion spills into the lobby afterward.
"What I love about the documentary is it feels to me like a love letter to teachers, a love letter at a time in education when teachers have been beat up," she says. "I think our feature film, as well as the documentary, show how important it is to be a good teacher. The most important thing a teacher can do is give students a voice."
This article appeared in print as "The War At Home: Freedom Writers muse Erin Gruwell brings documentary Stories From an Undeclared War back to her old stomping grounds."
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