Juniors and seniors almost filled the auditorium at Lynn English High School. Nearly all of them were standing, uncharacteristically silent.
“Stand up if you know someone who lost their life to senseless violence. I need to hear a pin drop. By standing, you are paying homage,” the woman on stage had said, moments before. She shook her head, and her voice cracked as she continued.
“Far too many of you are standing.”
The high school had invited Erin Gruwell — founder of education nonprofit the Freedom Writers Foundation — to speak with students to give them some inspiration. She had spoken with freshmen and sophomore students earlier that morning.
In Gruwell’s first year of teaching in the 1990s, she took on 150 students that the Long Beach, Calif., high school where she worked had deemed unreachable. But she worked with them by getting to know their lives, even the ugly things, like the gang violence and poverty prevalent in the area.
Gruwell and her students’ success was the inspiration behind the 2007 film “The Freedom Writers,” which Lynn English students watched and discussed in their English classes prior to the visit.
“We talked about how our situation in Lynn was similar,” said Juan Subervi, a junior at Lynn English. “I’ve been through all that, so I got what she was talking about.”
Violence has been a problem in Lynn for years. There have been 12 homicides in the city so far this year, according to the police department.
Gruwell adapted an activity she first used with her students — and is now an iconic scene from the movie — for her presentation. She had drawn a line down the center of her Long Beach classroom, and asked students to step to it if they identified with her instructions. “Step to the line if you’ve heard the new Snoop Dog record,” she began. “Step to the line if you know someone who’s life was lost to violence.”
In Lynn, she asked students to instead stand.
“We know people are dying,” student Liana Kim said. “But to have someone with authority to say it is really cool.”
After the assembly, over 40 students lined up in the hallway to buy “The Freedom Writers Diary,” the book put together by Gruwell’s original students. Gruwell hugged each student, talking to them as she signed each book with a personal note.
“It was so great to hug her,” said Zachary Marquez, a junior. “And she asked me questions about me, about my life.”
Ginny Keenan, peer mediation coordinator at Lynn English, was the organizer of the event. She saw one of Gruwell’s Freedom Writers speak at an education conference years ago, and has since been slowly raising money to bring Gruwell to Lynn.
“I wanted to be able to give them some inspiration and motivation to start the school year,” Keenan said.
Zainab Alkaby, a senior, said the movie and presentation by Gruwell brought her English class closer together.
“Everyone was talking about it the next day,” Alkaby said. She said she wants to see some of Gruwell’s teaching habits, particularly her use of games and activities to get students involved, used in Lynn.
“Many classes here tend to teach, but not focus on if the students are comfortable or not,” Alkaby said.
Lucy Omida Quiroa, a senior, said she saw how it was important for the Long Beach students to have someone who supported them individually. Omida Quiroa works long hours in Boston, and also plays varsity soccer, so she’s often exhausted. She said Keenan has encouraged her to keep coming to class, even if she accidentally sleeps through it.
Omida Quiroa lived in Guatemala for most of her life, and didn’t know English very well when she started at Lynn English. But her soccer coach and teammates have always made sure she understands what’s going on, and keep her motivated.
“They say, ‘Come on, Lucy!’” Omida Quiroa said. “And it makes me feel better about the situation around me.”
Keenan said the movie and the presentation have given her something to talk about and relate to with students.
“Generally, I think that we all come out with a better understanding of where people are coming from,” Keenan said. “My biggest hope, and my reason for doing the whole thing, was to inspire some of these students that have so many challenges.”Laura Elyse King can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @lauraelyseking.