The Real Erin Gruwell
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PHOTO CREDIT: Times photo by Dave Schwarz

I watched Freedom Writers last night. Two weeks ago I received a call from our local arts and humanities organization (CCAH) telling me that Carbondale Middle School teacher Amy Shubitz had written a grant requesting an artist come to her class to teach students how to journal! I was so honored that Ro, the director thought of me.

When I went to visit Amy yesterday to talk about her desire to have a visiting artist work with her class, she told me that the entire school went to see the movie and the kids were so inspired that they wanted to start journaling themselves! Now how about that for the minds of babes… Amy is a vibrant and visionary teacher who stated, "I don’t consider myself creative…"-if only had a nickel for every time a woman has said those words to me-yet when I looked around the room, I saw large collages hanging from string, poetry on the blackboard (in preparation for their Performance Poetry night at First Friday’s on May 4 at The Lift) and a woman who appeared to have so many creative gifts she was bringing to her students.

I had not seen the movie yet, so I went out and rented it last night. I was so inspired I could barely sleep. It took me back to 1994 when I wrote my own grant to CCAH, to create the Quilt of Cultural Understanding, so Latino and Anglo students could come together to create a quilt that expressed "their worlds."  This is a much longer story and I won’t bore you here, but needless to say, when I first moved to the Valley, the influx of Latino’s was just beginning. The tension between the two cultures was so thick, you could cut it with a knife. Coming from the South Florida area-a tri-populace area-I knew what this could lead to, and so the idea for the quilt was born.  I donated the quilt last year to a local Montessori school. 

I have many friends who are teachers and I have great compassion for them, as many went into the profession to express their love and desire for teaching. Teaching is innately creative, how could it be otherwise? What has happened in this realm with "no child left behind," is in my mind a terrible shame. I actually call it every teacher and child left behind, as not every child learns the same way and it can shackle the innate creative essence of the teacher. I was one of "those kids," in a time where "those kids" were labeled as slow.  My safe haven become the art room, yet even there I felt uneasy, as one of my challenges as an artist is that I have a spacial dyslexia. What this adds up to is that I can see depth, but when I go to translate it as perspective, my lines are backwards. It is why initially I become a photographer, as I found a way I could share what was inside me, without having to "draw it." Now I know better and draw and paint in my own style…which is what it is all about anyway!

Learning styles had not yet become a topic in education.  What I know now is that despite it being a horrific early school career, I became one of those teachers who now says, "don’t ever let someone tell you that you can’t!" At the ripe age of 21, I went for testing and was diagnosed with my supposed learning disabilities. I was told by the "psychologist"-and I use the term loosely here-"with your disabilites, you should consider vocational school." I was absolutely devestated by the entire process, and if it wasn’t for a teacher Steve Elliot, who taught me at Broward Community College, I might have believed this idiot. Steve turned my world around and became my mentor. He taught me what it meant to be a teacher and I have modeled my teaching style on his. I have tried unsuccessfully to find him to thank him, as that one semester with him, turned my life around.

When I got my Master’s Degree, I wanted to find that psychologist, but I could not. I had visions of taking a photo copy of my Diploma and nailing it to his door and writing in red lipstick-even though I don’t wear it-DON"T EVER TELL SOMEONE THEY CAN"T! I have shared this story with my classes each time I teach, so when I heard Hillary Swank say them, I about fell off my couch!

If you have not seen the movie yet, run don’t walk to your nearest video store and rent this inspiring movie. Another great movie is the Ron Clark Story. Don’t forget to watch the Special Features sections at the end of the movie-no peeking before hand-to meet the real inspirational teachers.

In an era of cutting back on teachers creativity in service of testing and compliance based teaching, I applaud all of you wonderful individuals who are sowing the seeds  the next generations leaders.