Erin Gruwell’s first classroom as an idealistic, new teacher brought her face to face with a microcosm of the gangs of Long Beach, California. These freshmen, many with learning disabilities, rap sheets, and parents who were inmates or junkies, entered Room 203, ignoring the eager rookie at the podium whose skin matched the pearls she had been cautioned not to wear in class. They staked out territory, pushed desks together and prepared to chat away their English class. None dreamed of making it to Junior year. Like their family members, they were treading water until fully absorbed into gang life, pregnant, in jail, or dead.
One morning, after six months without being able to elicit any cooperation let alone teach them anything, Gruwell wanted to know why the boy in the front row was upset and the rest of her class was laughing. She tore a crumpled note from his shaking hand. The boy was African American and the picture was a portrait with exaggerated racial features passed to him by the Latino gang memebers. Holding the picture up for all to see, she confronted them:
“I saw a picture like this once in a museum, only it wasn’t making fun of black people, but of a Jewish man. It was originally published in a magazine by the worst gang in history. You kids think you are original gangsters? You’re nothing compared to that gang. ”
“You think that your life would be good, that you would have it all together if the ‘others’ were gone, right? If the Black students were gone, or the Asians, or the Latinos, or whoever your ‘other’ is, then you would have a fair life? Well, that’s what this gang did. This (picture) is how the Holocaust happened. You think that when you die in the ‘war,’ you’ll get respect? You know what will happen to you when you die? You’ll rot in the ground and no one will ever think of you again. You will die forgotten, because you will have left nothing behind you except this.”
She held up the symbol of their mutual hatred. One student raised his hand:
“What was that thing you said, that thing that happened because of the pictures?”
“You mean the Holocaust?”
“Yeah, what’s that?”
Erin was stunned. She asked the students,
“Who knows what the Holocaust is?”
Only one knew. The bell rang.
During the next months, Gruwell worked two extra jobs to pay for books for her students, since the principle of the school wouldn’t hand out nice books to the gang kids. They started with the Diary of Anne Frank. Seen at a historical distance, and through the eyes of a real victim, the students were able to grasp the real nature and ugliness of the primary motivating force in their lives.