This memoir about a high school English teacher's experiences at a forcefully integrated California school is both touching and disturbing. It reveals...moreThis memoir about a high school English teacher's experiences at a forcefully integrated California school is both touching and disturbing. It reveals the ways in which race and class still split people apart and trap them in poverty and violence. With the other teachers and administrators largely being bigoted and uncaring, and the students being rebellious and mocking, Ms. Gruwell faced much adversity. Male students sexualized her rather than respected her, and both her white colleagues and her racially diverse students thought her idealistic and naive.
Yet, rather than give up, she sought to understand them. She asked about their personal lives, and began learning about rap and sports to be able to compare them to things in literature and history. But when a drawing gets passed around caricaturing a black student, it reminds her of Nazi drawings of Jews, and she berates the class on their making a joke of stereotyping. "This is how a holocaust happens," she shouts at them.
"Holocaust? What's that?"
That's right. None of them had heard about the Holocaust. When she asked how many of them had been shot at, everyone raised their hand. Gruwell learned how some had lost as many as a dozen friends to gang violence. “I’ve seen as many bodies as a mortuary,” Maria quips. Others attested to being brutalized by police, victimized by parents and other adults, ridiculed by teachers, and constantly fighting with rival gangs. Some faced racial prejudice in stark ways—one classmate lost a friend to a white-supremacist gang, who put his body inside a basketball hoop to intimidate other minorities. It turned out that a fellow white student had a brother who was part of that gang, though he rejected his brother’s racism and struggled to form connections with other students.
When she requested books such as The Diary of Anne Frank and Zlata's Diary, she was turned down, told that it was a waste of time, that her students were "too stupid" to understand such works, and would only ruin the copies. Gruwell used her own money to buy them from Barnes & Noble.
The students not only connected to stories of the Holocaust and war-torn Bosnia, they became extremely moved and got to meet Zlata and Holocaust survivors. Publicity began to build around Gruwell's activities, such as taking students to a screening of Schindler's List and the Museum of Tolerance. Unfortunately, this brought more hostility down on her, as angry phone calls came to her home, one caller even saying, "If you like black people so much, why don't you marry a monkey?" And Gruwell finds she has to sacrifice much in her personal life to stay dedicated, such as her husband divorcing her because of all the time she spent apart from him.
While it is clear that Gruwell sacrifices much to help, spending virtually all of her free time staying with students after class to help them with homework, driving them home, or working two additional jobs to afford books and field trips--one can also clearly see the humility and genuineness of her actions. Perhaps defiant and challenging at times, she never hesitates to remark how she shakes in terror at speaking in front of others. Nor does she fail to fret about her appearance or lack of experience in the efforts she dives into. The point she makes rings home a message of hope: though uncertain and limited, powerful things can happen with passion and love.
She does not hesitate to outline the many benefactors that helped her along the way, whether parents who volunteer to run fundraisers, or businessmen who donate thousands of dollars to send her and students overseas to Europe to visit Auschwitz and Bosnia.
There are many surprises and emotional moments that spring up in this astonishing tale, which is more the memoir of a family than of a person.
One of the reasons I like this story so much, aside from it being a tale of hope, is that it shows the power of literature to affect lives in a positive way. Some may dismiss this as a romanticized story of a white person saving the lowly minority, but lives were changed in real ways here. Also, she describes how her students touched her and others as much as she did them.
She got the students to collect their thoughts in what came to be published as the "Freedom Writers Diary," which is a good companion piece to this. These 2 books were used as inspiration for the movie "Freedom Writers," a rather good dramatization of the events and personalities involved.(less)
I may or may not return to this; I only I had to read selected chapters for a class: the chapters on Odysseus and the Hebrew Bible, Dante’s Divine Com...moreI may or may not return to this; I only I had to read selected chapters for a class: the chapters on Odysseus and the Hebrew Bible, Dante’s Divine Comedy, Don Quixote, and the last three (18 and 19, whose starting points are Stendhal and Edmond and Jules de Goncourt’s Germinie Lacerteux respectively, are more or less surveys of 18th century French Romanticism and emerging realism, touching also upon Balzac, Flaubert, and Zola; 20 looks at Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, while also looking at other modernist works such as Ulysses), as well as the introduction, epilogue, and appendix. I found Auerbach’s analyses interesting, if not always comprehensible. While his text is fairly straightforward (probably mostly due to the fact that he relies mostly on the primary texts, having written this while in exile in Istanbul, and not having access to critical resources), his critical approach is not systematic—something he actually addresses. The most striking insight is his revelation of how large a part religion and metaphysical thinking has played a part in literature, for certain doctrinal concepts and spiritual attitudes had significant effects on the ways in which writers depicted reality. His close attention to the primary texts also makes this, for me, a more enjoyable read than much other literary criticism, which either reacts largely to other critical texts or makes speculations and abstract claims about primary works (or both). He also addresses both aesthetic and cultural/historical aspects (whereas much literary criticism tends to emphasis one over the other). Finally, the whole situation of the author, which does influence the nature of his writing (and he even addresses these concerns to a certain point), gives an added edge of intrigue to the reading: Auerbach, a secular Jew, having fled from Nazi Germany, writes from Istanbul, a largely Muslim city, and his writings focus much on the impact of Christianity on world literature.(less)
Absolutely heartbreaking….A powerful account of Donald Hall’s and Jane Kenyon’s lives together, especially dealing with Kenyon’s leukemia in the last...moreAbsolutely heartbreaking….A powerful account of Donald Hall’s and Jane Kenyon’s lives together, especially dealing with Kenyon’s leukemia in the last few years of her life. I decided to read this after being awed by Kenyon’s Collected Poems, which often reference incidents or aspects of life mentioned here. I am also reading Hall’s Without (not too familiar with his work), a poetry collection focused on Kenyon’s last days (as well as other losses they experience during that time, such as the death of Kenyon’s mother.
I won’t say much more or I’ll be writing for hours, but suffice it to say that if you are interested in a poet’s memoir, especially one that deals powerful with love and loss, as well as the day to day struggles of two writers making a living from their craft, it’s a fantastic read. One caveat: much of what’s in here is repeated in Hall’s Without. My recommendation would be to first read Kenyon’s Collected Poems, or at least one of her books, and one of Hall’s, especially Without. The things I read about first in Kenyon’s poems really resonated with me when I read them in the memoir, but the opposite happened when I read them in the memoir first, and then saw them in Hall’s Without. (less)