Today's Lesson: The Pen Is Mightier

23-Feb-08 12:09 AM by
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As a former teacher, I'm intrigued by the classroom drama genre. My exposure to cinematic classrooms may lack such staples as Dangerous Minds, but I have seen Mr. Holland's Opus, To Sir With Love, Lean on Me, The Substitute, and High School High. Though I personally had very cooperative and intelligent pupils, it is not a stretch for me to imagine how woefully inadequate my private school upbringing would've left me for the rigors of a public classroom. Fortunately, thanks to the magic of Hollywood, I can imagine that experience without living it myself.

I'm speaking specifially of the 2007 film Freedom Writers, which I'd not heard of, nor the 1999 nonfiction book it's based on, until some recent research of The Diary of Anne Frank referenced this movie. Our protagonist is Erin Gruwell, an idealistic, fresh-out-of-college first-year teacher. Her students represent a variety of racial backgrounds, integrated after then-recent recent Rodney King riots. With students who fear each other and don't respect her, and an administration and husband that won't support her, Mrs. Gruwell unexpectedly finds herself rising to the greatest challenge of her life.

Mrs. Gruwell and her students come to know each other through a series of diaries that the teenagers keep and share; it is these records that serve as the basis for both the book and film. But the diaries themselves are not the story's focus, instead following the personal lives and tribulations of all the characters. There is much activity outside the classroom as in as we come to understand the politics and cost to all the school's residents. But my favorite scenes come from the classroom, where the interactions are the most tense. When the kids are on field trips, they're preoccupied with learning; when they're at home, they're among their own. It's in the classroom where racial and class tensions are palatable, with the physical war the kids wage amongst themselves as vital as the intellectual one Mrs. Gruwell needs to win.

Her opponents are outside the classroom, too — and though her co-workers and superiors are often made out to be villains, I find it easy to identify with their perceived mission: get the bad kids out of the classroom, do your best with the ones you can, and move on to the next year. Teaching is hard enough in even the best circumstances; the selflessness that Mrs. Gruwell's situation calls for can be almost self-destructive (as she finds out). Should all teachers be so giving? Maybe… but I have to wonder if her administrators are portrayed in this film as caricatures.

Hilary Swank, who I'd never seen in a lead role other than Million Dollar Baby, was entertaining to see as this not-so-tough character. Though Maggie Fitzgerald could've easily knocked any one of these ruffians — ah, the days of corporal punishment — Erin Gruwell runs for the hall monitor to break things up. Her castmates play their teenage roles effectively, giving a sense of depth that justifies their behavior to both their superiors and their racial rivals.

I can't say Freedom Writers is all that original; you can imagine how the film ends, and unlike Million Dollar Baby, there aren't too many surprises along the way. But that doesn't mean it isn't a fun or inspiring lesson that we can't all learn from, and the fact that it's based in truth gives us all hope for the next generation of students and teachers.

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