Idol Chatter

The world has seen its share of cheesy teacher-transforms-students movies (“Dangerous Minds” starring Michelle Pfeiffer is a classic example). But the “Stand and Deliver” examples of the genre–those that not only inspire but are also well-told, well-acted stories–are a rare breed.

Freedom Writers,” thankfully, is of the “Stand and Deliver” variety.

Based on a true story, “Freedom Writers” is about real-life teacher Erin Gruwell (Hilary Swank)–known as “Ms. G” to her students–who arrives at Wilson High School in gang-ridden Long Beach, Calif., with all the idealism of a shiny new college grad. As prim and proper as can be, with a beautiful string of pearls around her neck from daddy to complete the picture, audiences will know to cover their eyes for her sure-to-be-disastrous first day on the job. And it is indeed riddled with tension–between the rival gang members who are Ms. Gruwell’s students, and between the students and their inexperienced white teacher.

Beyond this initial predictability, “Freedom Writers” is an important tribute–not just to all the extraordinary teachers who populate some of our nation’s toughest classrooms, but to those young people whose daily battles for survival are unimaginable to most of us.

As the story evolves, we watch as Ms. G’s students are born again twice in the duration of the film–but not by religion. First we learn that each girl and boy has endured a baptism by blood. They leave behind their younger, tender, child-like selves for the tougher, if not older, people they must become as they are initiated into neighborhood gangs organized according to race.

But it is their second baptism–a baptism of books and words–that is truly salvific. In an activity that Ms. G calls a “Toast for Change,” she challenges each student to leave behind the self that walked into her classroom on that day–with all its negativity, anger, self-defeating beliefs, and shattered expectations–and take on a new self filled with hope and possibilities for the future. As each student raises a glass of sparkling cider and proclaims who they will be from this day forward, Ms. G gifts them with a bag of books, each of which reminds her uniquely of them.

“Freedom Writers” is, in many ways, the story of how books–whether in the form of personal journals, notebooks, letters, and diaries kept about the students’ lives or those, like “The Diary of Anne Frank,” which they read as a class (combined with the extraordinary dedication of Ms. G, of course)–can truly save a soul.

Audiences will be moved to both tears and cheers as they find themselves growing more and more attached to each student’s story. “Freedom Writers” is an inspirational story of the best kind, and I suspect people will leave the theater with hope about America’s classrooms and their leaders–and a strong desire to go out and buy “The Freedom Writers Diary: How a Teacher and 150 Teens Used Writing to Change Themselves and the World Around Them,” a book of diary entries from the real students of Miss G’s Room 203.

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