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From room 203 to route 17

September 18, 2017

students from Monticello's community school poseMore than twenty years ago, first-year teacher Erin Gruwell transformed the lives of 150 students in Long Beach, California by introducing them to the power of the pen. With the Los Angeles riots fresh on their minds, and plagued by poverty and violence, the students in room 203 at Woodrow Wilson Classical High School had been characterized as “unteachable” by the time Ms. Gruwell began her first year as an English teacher.

But Ms. Gruwell taught them. She enabled these students to turn their struggles -- domestic violence, unplanned pregnancies, drugs, violence, foster care – into triumph by encouraging them to anonymously journal about their lives. Eventually, the essays were compiled into the New York Times bestselling book, “The Freedom Writer’s Diary,” which received nationwide acclaim for its authenticity and rawness. The book, and the story of this class’ transformation, was adapted into a popular film, “Freedom Writers” in 2007.

Erin hugs a student on the busMore significantly, each and every one of the “Freedom Writers” graduated from high school, most being the first in their families to do so.

So, when Monticello High School student interns Aimar Guerre and Christina Gonzalez began researching speakers that they felt would make an impact on their peers as part of their internship duties, Ms. Gruwell was a shoo-in.

“I became a fan of hers after reading the book,” said Aimar. “Us teens, if we can find someone we can relate to, we will listen to you. And I feel like a lot of us can relate to this story.”

Aimar and Christina spent months coordinating the logistics in bringing Ms. Gruwell to Monticello, and on Sept. 8, Ms. Gruwell visited Monticello High School as a beginning-of-the-year speaker for Monticello’s high school and middle school students. Captivating the teen and tween audiences with vignettes of the lives of her former students, she spoke to the importance of writing your own story, rather than relying on self-fulfilling prophecies.

Raiden and Erin poseAt one point, she asked students to stand in their seats if they could answer “yes” to a series of questions. “How many of you know anyone who lives in poverty? Who struggles with an addiction? Who has moved more than ten times?” Students stood and looked around at the sea of standing faces, realizing that many of their peers share the same challenges.

“I wanted you to know that we see you,” she said as the students stood, one after the other. “We see you, we hear you and I want you to know that every adult in this room sees you and believes in you. You matter.”

At the end of the presentation, hordes of students came forward to speak with Ms. Gruwell, hugging and snapping photos. She spoke to each and every student, asking them about their lives and their plans and goals for the upcoming school year.

Robert J. Kaiser Middle School student Raiden Smith handed her a “transforming ninja star,” an origami piece of artwork that he had folded as she was giving her presentation.

“I was listening to her talk and a lot of it sounded like me,” Raiden said. “I made her a transforming ninja star because she helped to transform a lot of people.”

Aside from bringing Ms. Gruwell to Monticello, Christina and Aimar have taken on an active role in bringing the heart of her message to the greater Monticello community. The teens are in the midst of organizing a book discussion at the E.B. Crawford and Mamakating libraries. Keep an eye on the website for more information.