Happy Tuesday #Jontourage,
Welcome back to the “Classy Gent Chronicles”, where staying classy is the only way to be. Let's jump right into it....
Back in 2007, I saw a movie that truly changed my life forever. That movie was Freedom Writer’s. It is the story of a Los Angeles, California high school teacher named Erin Gruwell (played by Hillary Swank) and how her love and never say die attitude truly changed the lives of her students. The movie begins by setting the stage for the two major plots of the movie, first the eager beaver brand new teacher, Erin Gruwell, who is excited to make her mark but is met with doubt from the school staff. Secondly, the home lives of the 9th grade students who at first won’t be receptive to Ms. Gruwell or each other. This movie is set during the early 90’s right after the LA Riots so there is a huge divide amongst the class filled with minority at risk students.
As the movie goes on, the class begins to develop trust which turns into love for Ms. Gruwell but she pays the ultimate price for her hard work. It is ironic that as they move up a grade level to the 10th grade, she remains their teacher and some students from other classes begin to request transfers into her class. Despite the disdain from her fellow colleagues, her system really works and students deemed most likely to drop out are now honor roll students. However, she unfortunately loses her husband as the movie plays out his lack of support or understanding for the school she has chosen to work at.
The final issue plays out where the school looks to separate her from her students going into their junior and senior year by questioning their ability to succeed academically if she is not their teacher. In the end, the school board approves her to be their 11th and12th grade teacher. The movie ends with many of her students graduating from high school (some first generate graduates) and being accepted to college.
The reason I LOVE this movie so much is because I see myself as Ms. Gruwell in my line of work. I too work with many low-income minority students and whether you want to admit it or not, many minority students as well as students who come from low socio-economic environments have a tough time in the world of education. Most people would assume that when you are growing up, your only focus should be school work so when a student doesn’t perform well, it’s chalked up to laziness. However, imagine trying to do homework with no lights at home or trying to work on a project when you have several younger siblings to feed and get them ready for bed while your parent is either working two jobs or passed out from some form of substance abuse.
I was fortunate enough to come from a good socio-economic environment where I had both my parents to support all of my endeavors. I acknowledge that my situation is not everyone’s reality. Many of my students have been the man of the house since they were born because dad decided he didn’t feel like being a dad at this point in his life or dad passed away. The movie Freedom Writers really spoke to me because it encouraged me to remember you can get through to many of your students by simply being there and showing them you care. I actually work at a college whereas Ms. Gruwell worked at a high school but many of the issues and lessons still apply. There are plenty of days where my personal life has taken a major hit behind over-commitment to my job just like hers did. There are a thousand times I can tell you I have paid for something out of my own pocket for my student whether it be food, money for them to get a haircut, dress clothes, or money to get home. In the movie, Ms. Gruwell actually got a second job to pay for school supplies for her students so that her class could adequately be prepared.
Ms. Gruwell dealt with a LOT of jealously and hate from her colleagues and supervisors for her methods. Many people were convinced before her first day started that she would not last there because the kids would run her out. On top of that, she had many people who ran to the principal and school board to try and stop her separate from her students. My first year at my job went the same exact way. I had several people tell me I would only six months (October 2017 makes five years so there ya go ;) lol ). I had people gossip about me to administrators about some of my ideas and practices. I have had people try to get me fired. I have had “friends” congratulate me in public for an accomplishment and bash me behind the scenes because it wasn’t them. I share this to remind you that in life, everyone won’t be happy for you. Them not being happy for you should never interfere with what you have to do. Too often, we let opinions from others shape our decisions instead of letting our goals shape our decisions. You can never influence 100% of a crowd to be happy with you but as long as you are happy with yourself, that’s all that truly matters.
I loved the movie upon watching it but I truly understood Ms. Gruwell’s passion and pain when that became my own life story in 2012. About 80% of what happened to Ms. Gruwell has happened to me. She didn’t quit because of opinions and neither will I. She didn’t quit because her students didn’t warm up to her on day one and neither did I. She didn’t quit in the midst of a dwindling personal life and neither will I. Our students deserve people who won’t flake out them when it gets hard. Our students deserve people who come to serve. If you don’t care to serve, there are a million other professions that would better suit you.
Moral of the story: What movie really speaks to you? Freedom Writers was mine because everyone deserves to live out their passions. Have you found that thing that makes you feel complete in your professional life? What is your purpose in life?
Remember, in order to live out your dreams, you have to think it, feel it, live it! Until next time, stay classy...
Jonathan C. Harris is no stranger to leadership, hard work, or success. At the age of ten years old, he earned the right to be a guest weatherman for a day on Fox 5 DC News. He has already received over 100 honors and awards including Forty Under 40 for Prince George’s County, MD, TEDx Talk speaker, American College Personnel Association (ACPA) Outstanding Men’s Program, high school Valedictorian and the Kiwanis Club Citizenship Award. Raised in Fort Washington, Maryland, he has served in leadership positions his entire life, from being the manager of the school store in elementary school to the president of the Homelessness Awareness Club in middle school to the president of the National Honor Society in high school.