Saturday, January 13, 2007

Freedom's Just Another Word: Will we ever be free of movies like Freedom Writers?

Warning: I'm about to become one of those people who write about a movie without having seen it.

But really, this post isn't really about the movie. It's about a time and a place I don't talk about a lot. It's also about why, although I'm an educator, I care little for the Blackboard Jungle-style flicks that come out every 5 to 10 years and attempt to stir our social conscience.

My secret past

You might say I'm the classic middle-class white girl: of average weight but worried about it nonetheless; living in a smallish city in a suburban house fronted by a giant garage; a working mom who spends a good chunk of the weekdays in a cubicle; perhaps a bit better educated than most. Yeah, my life is pretty bland. You might imagine me hanging out with other suburban white moms as we swap tales about poop and Ph.D.s. And that would be a pretty accurate picture.

But rewind my life 15 years and the picture is a very different one. I lived in one of Long Beach's most affluent neighborhoods because my parents bought an affordable house in the right section of the city at the right time. However, because of the way the school district's gifted education programs were arranged, I spent most of my public school career attending schools outside of this neighborhood.

That meant that instead of enrolling in the local high school, I attended Poly High School, an inner-city school that represented one of the most racially and ethnically diverse spots on the planet. It's in a pretty sketchy neighborhood. Snoop Dogg graduated from Poly. And yes, I was there during the L.A. riots. As I left orchestra practice on Wednesday night, it was not uncommon to hear gunshots.

It was a time and a place that it's important to remember, but it's not one that needs, say, its own major motion picture.

Do you see where I'm going with this?

Freedom Writers and Wilson High School

I'm not sure if I want to see the movie Freedom Writers. It sounds like a retelling of Blackboard Jungle, where the idealistic young white teacher comes in, wins over the working-class students of color, and shames the rest of the embittered faculty in the process. For those of you who don't pay attention to movies coming out of Hollywood, Freedom Writers is the story of Erin Gruwell, an English teacher at Long Beach's Wilson High School. The story begins in 1994, a year after I graduated from high school--and, incidentally, at the time my younger sister was attending Wilson and when I had family and friends working at Wilson as teachers and librarians and even as principal. My family has been attending the school since the 1930s, so although I didn't go to Wilson, I know the school and its history pretty well.

I also know how Hollywood treats high schools that have large populations of students of color. I can already picture the mob scenes of students in a ghetto-looking campus quad, the overflowing trash cans and graffiti on the walls. And of course, in the Hollywood version all the students of color will be poor and most of them will probably be gangstas. But that's not Wilson. Wilson is, as public schools in Southern California go, a really nice campus. It's a classical high school where today college prep students wear uniforms of khaki slacks, skirts, or shorts and bright white shirts with burgundy jackets or sweaters. Parents of all races jockey to place their children at the school.

I understand that Freedom Writers isn't a documentary, but it is based on documentary evidence--it's drawn from the journals of Gruwell's students, largely students of color bussed in from other neighborhoods. And people in theaters across the U.S. and around the world are going to see this movie and maybe believe its portrayal of a faculty that doesn't give a damn about students from outside the neighborhood, students some teachers in the movie deem "unteachable."


I'm sick and tired of movies like this one in which teachers are heroized simply for taking their jobs seriously and where students are celebrated for surviving their everyday lives and for passing English or math class. Yes, it sucks to be working class. It sucks to live in a crappy neighborhood. It sucks to lose friends to violence. It sucks to pick up your yearbook and read the obituaries. It sucks to go to the nurse's office and see girls comparing sonograms. It sucks to have razor wire atop all the fences at your high school. And yes, it takes a lot of energy and commitment to teach well in an environment where students have so many distractions. We all understand that, right?

Instead of a studio spending $20 million or more to make a movie and audiences paying upwards of $30 million for movie tickets and DVDs, why don't we pool that money and give it to, oh, the actual schools? Then maybe we won't have scaffolding propping up sagging walkways; maybe every student can have a desk instead of people sitting atop cabinets in crowded classrooms, and perhaps bungalow classrooms set up on the basketball court can have electricity. Inner-city schools could offer more college prep courses and quality vocational programs instead of shunting students into JROTC and the armed forces. And maybe, if we're lucky, the science books in the library won't say, as they did when I was in junior high, "Someday man might go to the moon."

Perhaps with such resources we'd have more schools like Wilson and its cross-town rival, Poly High, which every year sends students to the best colleges and universities in the nation. Instead of sensationalizing gang violence, we could quietly celebrate the upward mobility and increased political engagement of the next generation. We could recognize that most teachers are dedicated, and we could acknowledge their commitment with better salaries that would draw some of the brightest students back into teaching.

And maybe, just maybe, Hollywood and others would stop conflating the journal-keeping of high school students at a relatively affluent, integrated high school with the heroism of the Freedom Riders who risked life and limb to integrate the American South in the early 60s. Because with with the $50 million or more that Americans are spending on this one movie--plus the millions from movies like it in the past and future--we'd be able to teach our students some damn good history.

With a more educated citizenry, "freedom" won't be just another word we use to sell stuff.


Anonymous said...

Having seen the movie, seen the Freedom Writers speak in LB (yes, they really did name _themselves_ that), heard Ms. Gruwell speak, and having read parts of the book they wrote, I do have to point out that:

A) Some of the information in this adminttedly sensationalized movie was taken from a book that is essentially an edited version of the actual journals

B) You know I know what Wilson's like. The actual classroom in the movie was, however, a replica of Gruwell's shitty room. And frankly, I'm not worried about how the school looks to Hollywood, since being the darling of the local paper, it's the only bad press Wilson's ever gotten.

C) Yeah, it's great that Poly sent so many people (like you and me) to great schools with solid high school educations behind us, but I know you are as aware as I about how many African-American and Latino kids were(n't) in the gifted magnet program, though many more should have been.

Having said all that, I thought Freedom Writers (the movie, not the book) was crappy--a virtual xerox copy of Blackboard Jungle, Dangerous Minds, and all the usual White Knight schlock that comes out once a decade, talking about how "we're" going to save the poor "ghetto kids" with a few stratigically-placed glares and a really big heart. I saw it last month with a diverse group of once-and-future teachers from my education program. We all sighed, muttered, and rolled our eyes, and then swapped stories about our own kids, many of whom were in very similar situations.

The caricatures of every character other than Gruwell (especially the husband, administrator, and apparently lone other teacher) were so over-the-top they must surely have been cut from whole cloth. The usual facile Hollywood devices. And yes, I also tire of the tone of education debate in this country, aided and abetted by Hollywood. Lip-service to teachers about the importance of our work, expedient but insuffiencient promises of funding, ass-backwards priorities, massive condescention to anyone who doesn't grow up (as you and I did) in a situation ideally suited to the pursuit of a formal, middle-class U.S. education, and of course, the un-ending stream of over-simplified, racist, formulaic presentations of education on tv and in movies.

It's a pity Freedom Writers isn't a better movie, and a pity it didn't follow the Freedom Writers themselves farther into their quite successful adult lives. (I will persisit in refering to them by the collective name they chose because of the inspriation they derived as young people from the example of the Freedom Riders.) There is a potentially useful and important story here. If it were a better movie, and not one that would allow everyone to go home feeling that the status quo would chug along just fine and needed no changing, what with ol' Ms. Gruwell out there. And especially if it wasn't the only story that Hollywood and our state and national polititians were willing to tell about education.
It's a pity we can't seem to have real discussions about education in this country: discussions about the realities faced by children (like my students) living in gang zones, that are useful and multi-voiced instead of derivative and trite. It's a pity that we can't then broaden the topics under discussion to take on the many more issues plaguing the way we deal with education for all American kids. And frankly, it would be nice if we could actually start talking about what we think education is for.

Leslie M-B said...


I'm sorry if I gave the impression that I don't recognize the tough times faced by poor students in the LBUSD. My point was that we all know these students exist, but that we need to do more than tell their stories--we need to actually invest in their education in such a way that they can achieve whatever goals they set for themselves, whether that means becoming an electrician, attending CSULB, opening a daycare center, becoming a fashion designer, or going to Harvard.

Anonymous said...

I know--I didn't mean to suggest you are unaware of poor kids. :)

Lauren said...

I think it makes white middle class people feel better... it reinforces the idea that it's the attitudes of poor people of color that lead to violence, and not structural factors that need major overhauling. A good teacher makes kids act differently, and suddenly those kids are successful, therefore kids who aren't successful are failing because of attitude/choice problems, and not because of structural racism and classism. Makes me crazy! I'm thinking of writing a term paper this semester about classroom memoirs like this. Blech!

Anonymous said...

This is a very nice post, and I want to see how others react to this.