Erin Gruwell did not expect to be a household name in Taiwan when she arrived earlier this month, but when she entered the auditorium for a speech the next day, she was met by more than 1,000 people.
“It’s amazing for a book that we only expected 150 of us to read, never thought people outside our classroom would pick it up, let alone to be across the world in Taiwan,” she said during an interview with the Taipei Times on Dec. 10.
But Freedom Writers Diary — a collection of journals by Gruwell’s 150 high school students — wasn’t the only reason many Taiwanese were enchanted by Gruwell and her story.
Her appeal also had a lot to do with the movie Freedom Writers starring Hilary Swank, released in Taiwan last year.
Although Swank gave an impressive performance in the movie, expertly portraying how persistent and caring the real Gruwell was with her students, she was still unable to completely capture the essence of Gruwell’s personal charm and her passion for education.
“I’ve always thought that education is the greatest way to be equal in a society that oftentimes values equality,” a beaming Gruwell said in a Taipei County Hall conference room.
Gruwell, now in her late 30s, is best known for her dedication to 150 underprivileged students at Wilson High School in Long Beach, California, between 1994 and 1998, as portrayed in the movie.
“Almost every event and character [in the movie] was accurate” as Gruwell and her students formed a partnership with the filmmakers and helped with casting, costume choice and the set of the film.
But a two-hour film is not enough to accommodate every detail of her five years of work with the students, whom the school administration previously considered unteachable.
Gruwell, then 26, went into a community where many parents were not educated and children were in need of a good education to help them out of poverty.
Though a novice teacher who had just graduated from college, she soon formulated a plan.
“I thought the best way to get my kids out of that situation was to teach them critical thinking, to question what they knew,” she said.
And the main methods she used were reading and writing, which may seem ordinary at first, but collaborations between the students could be life-altering.
“I think reading and writing have something to do with expression and having a voice,” she said.
With their family and neighborhood backgrounds, many of Gruwell’s students felt they were “invisible” and “didn’t matter,” but she was determined to help them feel important and find their own voice.
“The more you read, the better writer you become and the better communicator. They all went hand-in-hand,” she said.
Describing reading and writing as “empowering tools,” Gruwell said she began by choosing books about and for children who came from backgrounds similar to those of her students.
One of the books the movie highlighted was The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank, a Jewish girl who hid from the Nazis during World War II.
Also on the list was Zlata’s Diary by Zlata Filipovic, a young girl who survived the Bosnian War in Sarajevo between 1991 and 1993.
In addition to encouraging her students to read, Gruwell also pushed them to put their own stories into words by keeping journals regularly.
“I wanted my students to know that you had a story to tell just like Anne Frank ... If you write them down, you too could be mortal and could have a voice in society,” she said.