Writing close to home Students meet the teacher who inspired them to keep diaries.

Posted: April 19, 2007

Asked to stand if they had ever buried a friend or family member who had been murdered, one in four eighth graders at a Philadelphia middle school gathering yesterday rose from their seats.

Five were still standing when asked if they had lost three or more.

Among them was Aneisah Scott, 15. The moment was overpowering for her, seeing so many of her classmates standing. There was Christopher Herd, 15, who said he had lost six people close to him, including an uncle shot in the head, a baby cousin murdered, an aunt strangled by her boyfriend, and a friend raped and killed. And Dionne Shank, 14, whose father was shot to death in 1999 in a Philadelphia neighborhood, an event that shattered her life.

The count for Aneisah was five: Friends. An uncle. A cousin. They ranged in age from 15 to 22. All fell to gun violence.

"Are you going to cry?" asked Erin Gruwell, the Long Beach, Calif., educator who had posed the question during yesterday's visit to Grover Washington Jr. Middle School in Olney.

Aneisah, her hair pulled back in a powder-blue band, looked down.

"We understand," Gruwell said in a comforting tone, putting her hand over her own heart.

Aneisah was still crying 10 minutes later.

Gruwell was already a hero to the 120 students who heard her speak. They have spent the school year reading The Freedom Writers Diary, chronicling Gruwell's year as a fledgling high school teacher during which she turned her students on to learning by encouraging them to write about their personal lives in journals.

The movie, starring Hilary Swank as Gruwell, was released in January.

Like Gruwell's class, students at Grover Washington write in journals and share their entries with classmates, while studying violence in their community and the world. The school is in its third year of the journal-writing project, which was featured in an Inquirer series last June.

Two of Gruwell's "Freedom Writers," now in their mid-20s, accompanied Gruwell to Grover Washington. One of them, Maria Reyes, had defied the code of the streets and testified in court that her friend had killed someone.

Reyes didn't tell the Grover Washington students about that emotional day in court, which is depicted in the movie. Instead, she talked of growing up in a poor but loving family, awash in the gang culture. Her grandfather was in a gang. Her father was in a gang at age 13. Reyes herself was "jumped into" a gang at age 11. At age 9, Reyes punched a teacher who told her she'd never do anything more than get pregnant; it was the only way she knew how to deal with her anger, she said. The only birthday gift she ever received from her father was a pair of boxing gloves, which she got at age 5.

When she arrived in Gruwell's class, on probation and wearing an ankle monitor, she took it out on Gruwell.

"She never thought picking up a pen, picking up a diary, was going to change her life. It did," Gruwell said, introducing Reyes.

"When I look into all of your eyes, I can see that most of you know what I'm talking about," said Reyes, who went on to finish college and now works full-time for Gruwell's California foundation, which trains teachers in the journal-writing program. "I recognize your spirit. . . . I was you. I am you."

The students were riveted. "I could feel her pain," said Vanessa Hicks, 14, who didn't have a friend or relative die of violence but knew well two neighborhood boys who killed a girl.

"I know some of the stuff she went through. I feel it, too, and I felt the same anger that she does."

Vanessa says she is grateful to her teacher, Michael Galbraith, for allowing students to write in the journals.

"There's so much stuff and you want to talk about it, but you don't know who to talk to," she said. "When you can write in your journal about it, I guess it's just a way for us to let it go and free our conscience and walk with our head held higher."

Dionne, who recalled how she lost confidence in herself after her father was fatally shot in the head, agreed: "You can just express everything, your true thoughts."

Vanessa continued. "I guess they're lifesavers," she said of the journals, "because there are so many kids in our class with so much pent-up anger."

Layla Martin, 13, was among many students who swarmed around Gruwell and the Freedom Writers after the talk concluded, asking for their autographs as if they were rock stars.

"She's like a hero to me," Layla said of Gruwell, who hugged her and encouraged her to keep up her writing. "I wanted something I could cherish and keep. I wanted to tell somebody I met her."

Layla said she had five family members who died of violence, including three cousins, an uncle, and a "god-sister."

She said she especially liked hearing Reyes' story.

"I'm glad that I came . . . so I'll know I have a better chance in life, that I can do bigger and better things," she said.

Grover Washington wasn't Gruwell's only local speaking engagement. For four hours on Tuesday evening, she addressed about 800 educators, students and residents in the Cheltenham area, and last night, she was scheduled to tell her story to about 100 young executives in the region who belong to the Young Presidents Association. She hopes to build support for her program and schools in general.

Gruwell, who has visited Grover Washington four times in the last three years at the request of Bob Vogel, a La Salle University professor and educational consultant at the middle school, said thousands of teachers contacted her foundation after the movie came out. The training program is expanding with the goal of bringing in 150 teachers a year.

Contact staff writer Susan Snyder at 215-854-4693 or ssnyder@phillynews.com.

philly.com

For slide shows and audio of the Grover Washington Freedom Writer students talking about trauma in their lives: http://go.philly.com/writing

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