The day many students and teachers at Lincoln Southeast had been awaiting finally arrived Wednesday, when three California students told their inspirational stories before an all-school assembly.
Tiffony Jacobs, Sharaud Moore and Maria Reyes shared their story of being part of a Long Beach, Calif., high school class that in 1994 overcame their rigid beliefs and found hope through writing about their lives.
The Freedom Writers, as the students called themselves, and their teacher, Erin Gruwell, eventually told their story in a book that became a movie.
Wednesday, they told their story in person.
“When life attacks you, like it did me, you begin to blame,” Moore said. “So what I did is I began to lash out at the world.”
The son of a drug-addicted father, Moore began carrying a knife to school and joined a gang. But being a gang member didn’t fit the structured lifestyle his mother imposed on him, he said.
And he began to look for meaning in his life.
His teacher, Gruwell, helped him find that meaning, he said, showing him that through writing he could use his pain to help himself — and others. He graduated from high school and college.
He became a teacher.
“I’m here to tell you that tough times don’t last,” he said. “Tough people do.”
Students and staff at Lincoln Southeast worked hard to bring the three Freedom Writers to their school. They sent letters to businesses, held fundraisers and sold T-shirts.
They raised $7,050.
So when Jacobs, Reyes and Moore took the stage Wednesday, they weren’t just any other motivational speakers.
“They got really in-depth in their stories and what it meant to be a Freedom Writer,” said Sean Goans, a ninth-grader.
Goans spent last semester in teacher Paul Smith’s English class, learning about the Freedom Writers and following their path to self-discovery. Smith’s students wrote in journals, read the “The Freedom Writers Diary” and discussed deep, personal topics, learning much about each other and themselves, Goans said.
“It was something I didn’t expect,” he said.
And, along with the school’s DECA students, they helped raise money to bring the three Freedom Writers to the school.
They weren’t disappointed.
Jacobs told of being shy, a quiet student who was screaming on the inside because of the abuse she witnessed and suffered at home.
“I wanted to yell at my teachers that I didn’t care about my homework because I couldn’t even see it with the electricity off,” she said.
Times got so hard she had to live with friends because her family was evicted from their home — and she was starving.
“When I entered Erin’s class, I saw a light at the end of the tunnel,” she said, choking up. “I knew that I would never live a life that my parents lived.”
She formed a plan, a plan to finish high school and go to college. To get out of poverty and build a life free of abuse, she said.
And she did those things, graduating from college and starting her own clothing company.
“No matter what it is, no matter where you go, know that you can make it happen,” she said.
Reyes spoke of joining a gang at age 11, making her the third generation of her family to be a gang member.
She didn’t want to believe her teachers could tell her anything to convince her that her life wasn’t already over.
“My story had already been told, and I truly believed that,” she said.
Then came Gruwell. She didn’t like her at first, Reyes said. She didn’t think Gruwell could understand what she was going through.
Then Gruwell told her students to read “The Diary of Anne Frank.”
Reyes said she didn’t expect to relate to the story of a Jewish girl trying to survive the Holocaust during World War II.
But one night, as she read by candlelight because the power in her home had been shut off, a line in the book struck her.
“I came to this phrase that simply read, ‘I feel like a bird in a cage and I wish I could fly away,’” she said. “And at that moment I got it.”
She began writing.
Of losing dozens of friends to gang wars. Of committing crimes and standing before judges.
Of the connection she felt to a little girl who died nearly 50 years before, but spoke the words she had felt her entire life.
She began to believe, in herself and in her future.
And one day, along with 149 other Freedom Writers, she stood in a line, crossed a stage and got her diploma. As they crossed the stage, she said, they realized what they had done was bigger than themselves.
“I have tell you that today it was proven,” she said. “It was proven that somebody like Paul Smith could do something like Ms. G did and even bigger because he got his community involved, he got his high school involved.”
Reach Kevin Abourezk at 473-7225 or firstname.lastname@example.org.