She has been deemed “unteachable” in high school and is now on a mission to advocate a new educational philosophy. What drives someone with such an essential but challenging goal? What keeps her going? Sue Ellen shares her personal story and why every single day at work can make all the difference.
Back in L.A. in the 1990s
The story begins in Long Beach, L.A., in the 1990s when gang-related crime and violence saw a tremendous surge in this area. For the majority of the young students of a class at Wilson High School, homework and test scores were the least of their worries. Many teachers had already dismissed these students as “unteachable” and “incapable of learning”.
But a remarkable transformation took place when Erin Gruwell became their new English teacher.
Mrs. Gruwell made her students amongst others read relevant, relatable literature such as Anne Frank and Zlata Filipovic. She also encouraged them to write journals themselves. This proved to be a crucial practice for the students, as some for the first time allowed themselves to express their thoughts and feelings. Through her unique teaching methods, Erin has been able to build bridges between the harsh realities of the children’s lives and the learning material in the classroom. She believed in them and taught them to believe in themselves. Moreover, she inspired her students to take an interest in their education and their futures.
“Erin created a place where I could feel safe.”
Ultimately, all these students graduated from Wilson High School, resulting in a record number of graduates to this date.
Carrying on the legacy
Erin Gruwell soon after founded the Freedom Writers Foundation, which advocates an educational philosophy that values and promotes diversity and fights for equality in education. The foundation awards scholarships, has published its philosophy in several books and holds workshops for teachers to provide them with the tools to engage and empower their students. Moreover, Erin and former students have given numerous speeches that inspired students and teachers all over the world. What unites all involved, is the belief that education can make a human’s life better.
Many of the original students from the said Wilson High School have joined the mission and work for the foundation. Among them is Sue Ellen. As for many classmates, her encounter with Erin was life-changing. Her transformation is a beautiful example and impressive, unmistakable evidence of what it matters if you have someone who believes in you and encourages you to believe in yourself. Someone who shows you that change is possible and that if you fall it doesn’t mean that you can’t get back up.
The full story
Sue Ellen remembers her hardships as a pupil and the worries she brought with her into Erin’s classroom. And most importantly, she shares how she has found ways to cope with them now.
“At a very young age, I experienced every kind of abuse you could imagine. When I was only thirteen years old, I had my first suicide attempt. Luckily, this attempt was unsuccessful and allowed me to be there for my brother who was passing away at the time. However, just because it was unsuccessful did not mean that those feelings went away. Coming from a home that did not believe in getting help for mental health issues, I did not get the proper care. After years of not confronting the problem, it all caught up to me in college and I had to be hospitalized.
This was when I decided to take ownership back of my life. I had to cut out the family who hindered my success and embrace those who were good for me. This, however, is easier said than done. Depression is not a linear process; it is full of ups and downs and is a lifelong battle.
Even though I still struggle to this day, I have figured out coping strategies that allow me to be my own advocate. I have found simple ways to help myself on a daily basis; this could look like mediation, writing, poetry or art. On top of trying to find the little joys in life, I have also seen the importance of finding people in my life I can confide in. Developing friends that you can count on, no matter what, is a critical component of a support system. Simply being open to getting help, in any capacity, is an amazing first step. This might look like seeking out medication to help, talk therapy, group therapy; just knowing that there are others out there that feel the same way that you do.
This is why working at the Freedom Writers Foundation gives me optimism. Knowing that every day, when I come to work, I could potentially help a child that has a similar background to me.”
Passing on the love and support
The story of Sue Ellen reveals the fundamental importance of good teachers and education. But it goes beyond that. The story is representative of all those people who draw their motivation for what they do from the same hope as Sue Ellen. Their source of optimism is the realization that they might be the significant person for someone that someone once was for them.
Thanks for reading and thank you, Sue Ellen, for sharing your story.