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My father was involved in the civil rights movement, and I remember when I was watching the LA riots on TV, I was thinking of going to law school at the time, and I thought, "God, by the time you're defending a kid in the courtroom, the battle's already lost." I think the real fighting should happen here, in the classroom.
~ Erin's teaching philosophy.

Erin Gruwell is the protagonist of the 2007 autobiographical drama film Freedom Writers and a fictionalized version of the real Erin Gruwell. She teaches a racially diverse class of at-risk students who all view each other and Erin with disdain for their ethnic differences. Through her determination and support given to the students, however, they all eventually learn to look past each other's race and form friendships with each other as well as Erin herself.

She was portrayed by Hilary Swank.

Biography

Erin Gruwell is a new teacher at Woodrow Wilson High School, and chose it specifically because of the voluntary integration, since whereas most see it as a stain on the school's reputation, Erin sees it as an opportunity to truly educate and inspire the troubled children. On her very first day, she walks into the school with confidence and an optimistic grin, but quickly finds her students, who are classified as being "at-risk", to be very difficult, with many of them being indifferent to her, and two even start a fight in the class, and the stress of the job begins weighing on Erin already, but she remains hopeful that she can change their attitudes.

The next day, indifference and racial tension among the students still remain present but with less violence. Unfortunately, outside the class, a school riot has started and the students all pour out into it, leaving Erin concerned and disheartened. Erin faces adversity outside of her work as well, as her father is discontented with her occupation and claims she's wasting her talents. She remains determined despite this, as well as subtle suggestions from her coworkers that her students aren't worth it. Erin attempts to introduce the kids to poetry, but they discredit her as a teacher and continue to cause conflict between each other, with Erin constantly needing to request help from the resource officer, who has to herd them back into class like sheep.

At a teacher's conference, the principal informs them all of a recent shooting and murder involving Wilson High students, one of them being Eva, who was witness to the shooting and would have to testify. In class, the students pass around a note, many of them laughing until black student Jamal receives it, where Erin picks it up to reveal it's an incredibly racist caricature of a black person. Genuinely disgusted, Erin then compares the drawing to another of "the Jew" from the Nazi Germany era, and that such dehumanization is what caused the Holocaust and what could start another. The students chastise Erin and express contempt for her because she's white. Finally, after much tearful back and forth, the student who drew the cartoon, Tito, raises his hand and admits he doesn't know what the Holocaust is, and Erin realizes almost none of them, except for Ben, a white student. She then asks if any have ever been shot at, and everyone, save for Ben, raises their hand.

Despite adversity from her pessimistic superior Margaret Campbell, Erin once again attempts to connect with the students through a game where they step onto a line if the question asked elicits a "yes" from them, and most of them are met with a majority stepping forward, with all of them having lost at least one person to gang violence. She provides them each with journals to write in every day with various things pertaining to their lives, promising she won't read them unless they allow her to. For the first time, the students consider what she says and most take a journal, with only a few remaining restrained. Erin's investment in the students also begins to affect her home life and relationship with her husband Scott Casey.

The next night, Erin finds all of the notebooks inside the cabinet she said to leave them in if they wanted them to be read. Every last one strikes an emotional nerve with her, with all of them containing horrific details of the students' lives. Erin starts working a part-time job to pay for more materials such as books for the students, concerning Scott. Erin also appeals directly to the school district to ensure she meets no resistance in her attempts to expand her students' thinking, continuing to take on part-time jobs, putting greater strain on her relationship with Scott. Erin is granted permission to take the kids on a field trip to the Simon Wiesenthal Center, where they learn more about the horrors of Nazi Germany and hear stories from survivors at a hotel later.

At the start of sophomore year, it becomes apparent that Erin has inspired change amongst the students, with many if not all of them breaking the color barriers. She has them all make a "toast to change", with one student reading from his journal and proclaiming the classroom his home away from home. The students read Anne Frank's diary, and Eva in particular finds herself connecting with her writings, but confronts Erin in anger after reading that Anne was caught and died in the camps. Erin later has them write a letter to the still-living Miep Gies, who helped hide the Franks during the war, and the students suggest raising money to bring Miep Gies to speak at the school. They are successful and Gies arrives at the school, telling them the story of the day the Franks were captured and her life was barely spared. Marcus, a black student deeply inspired by Gies, proclaims her to be his hero, which she humbly denies being, but that everyone has the capability to bring light to the dark and that all of the students are the true heroes.

Eva is inspired to tell the truth in court about the shooting instead of "protecting her own", confessing that her boyfriend Paco was responsible for the murder. As a result, she is threatened and disowned by the other Latinos, including her father. She tells Erin and requests to be able to stay late in the class out of fear of getting jumped, which Erin graciously allows. Unfortunately, back at home, Scott reveals he's unhappy in the marriage and he makes the decision to divorce Erin, leaving Erin in despair.

During the Spring semester, Erin admits to her class she won't be teaching them in the junior year, upsetting them as they all suggest a way to change that. Her stress continues to eat at her, not helped by the divorce, but her father reassures her that she's a great teacher and he admires her. Erin goes to the school district to request to be able to teach her students next year and comes to a standstill with Ms. Campbell and her colleague Brian Gelford.

Back at the school, Erin confronts Andre on his disappointingly low self-evaluation mark, refusing to let him deprecate himself and has him write a new evaluation. In the classroom, Erin once again tells her class she can't teach them next year after deliberation with the district, much to their outrage. She encourages them to move on, citing that they were the ones who changed themselves, not that she changed them. She has them all amalgamate their journal entries and come up with a name for themselves, and they choose "Freedom Writers", inspired by the civil rights activists known as the Freedom Riders, and titles their combined journal entries The Freedom Writers Diary.

After another meeting with her superiors, Erin announces to the Freedom Writers that she was successful in getting to be able to teach them not only during the junior year but senior as well. The film ends with an epilogue explaining that The Freedom Writers Diary was eventually published in 1999, and Erin and the Freedom Writers founded the Freedom Writers Foundation, which was dedicated to helping students improve and eventually graduate. All of the Freedom Writers graduated high school and many became the first in their families to go to college/university.

Personality

From her first moments on screen, it's apparent that Erin is vivacious and determined to ignite real change in the school as well as the world, diametrically opposed to her colleague and superior who had given up hope for the at-risk students. She was perceived by both of them as being naive, but she proved rather tenacious and strong-willed instead, as evidenced by the fact that she really did make change. She walks into every room with a smile and can-do attitude, although she does face some challenges in the beginning when she realizes the situation is more volatile than she had expected.

Erin is shown to be much more empathic than most of those around her, thinking first about others before herself in most situations, demonstrated through her conversations with Margaret Campbell and Brian Gelford, wherein she expresses her opposition to their methods and accuses them of not caring for the kids, which they don't confirm as the truth but also don't deny. Her sympathetic nature also proves contagious, made clear not only by the Freedom Writers but also her father, who initially disapproved of her job but after seeing the good she had done, supported and encouraged her to keep going, even as her divorce from Scott was happening.

Included in Erin's overall caring personality is also anger, as she is shown to get upset when truly disheartened or appalled, with a notable example being her lengthy rant to her students over the negative power wielded by simple racist cartoons after confiscating an offensive drawing of a black person from her class. This is not true rage but is rather her empathy shining through in a different form, thinking of how the person the drawing targeted (Jamal) must've felt seeing it. Another instance of this is when she reprimands Andre for giving himself an "F" on his self-evaluation, knowing he knows he's worth so much more than that.

Quotes

Well, if I do my job, they might be lining up at the door.
~ Erin remains hopeful that she can change her students' attitudes.
I can't believe he brought up my salary. What's happened to him? He was like Atticus Finch to me when I was growing up and now he's talking about salaries? I think he's playing too much golf. In fact, I think he needs an intervention. Why isn't being a teacher good enough for him?
~ Erin to Scott, about her father's disapproval of her occupation.
You think this is funny? Tito! Would this be funny if it were a picture of you?
~ Erin's bafflement at Tito's racist drawing.
Maybe we should talk about art. Tito's got real talent, don't you think? You know something... I saw a picture just like this once in a museum, only it wasn't a black man. It was a Jewish man, and instead of the big lips, he had a really big nose, like a rat's nose. But he wasn't just one particular Jewish man, this was a drawing of all Jews. And these drawings were put in the newspapers by the most famous gang in history. You think you know all about gangs? You're amateurs. This gang would put you all to shame. And this gang started out poor and angry, and everybody looked down on them until one man decided to give them some pride, an identity, and someone to blame. You take over neighborhoods? That's nothing compared to them. They took over countries, and you wanna know how? They just wiped out everybody else. (Students respond with approval) Yeah, they wiped out everybody they didn't like, and everybody they blamed for their life being hard, and one of the ways they did it was by doing this. See, they'd print pictures like this in the newspapers. Jewish people with big, long noses. Blacks with big, fat lips. They'd also publish scientific evidence that "proved" Jews and blacks were the lowest form of human species. Jews and blacks were more like animals, and because they were just like animals, it didn't really matter whether they lived or died. In fact, life would be a whole lot better if they were all dead. That's how a Holocaust happens. And that's what you all think of each other.
~ Erin explaining the Holocaust to her students, comparing Tito's drawing to Nazi propaganda.
Alright, alright! So what you're saying is, if the Latinos weren't here, or the Cambodians or the blacks or the whites or whoever "they" are, if they weren't here, everything would be better for you, isn't that right? (Students agree) Right, right. It starts with a drawing like this, and then some kid dies in a drive-by, never even knowing what hit him.
~ Erin continues chastising her students over their racism.
So when you're dead, you'll get respect? Is that what you think? You know what's gonna happen when you die? You're gonna rot in the ground, and people are gonna go on living, and they're gonna forget all about you. And when you rot, do you think it's gonna matter whether you were an original gangster? You're dead. And nobody, nobody is gonna wanna remember you, because all you left behind in this world is this.
~ Erin tells Marcus the harsh truth.
These kids, they're 14, 15 years old, and if they make it through the day alive, that's good enough, and I'm supposed to teach them?
~ Erin to her father after showing him the students' journal entries, worried that she might not be able to handle them all.
Okay, guys, gals, listen up! I want each of you to step forward and take one of these Borders bags, which contain the four books we're gonna read this semester. They're very special books, and they each remind me, in some way, of each of you. But, before you take the books, I want you to take one of these glasses of sparkling cider, and I want each of you to make a toast. We're each gonna make a toast for change. And what that means is, from this moment on, every voice that told you "you can't" is silenced. Every reason that tells you things will never change disappears. And the person you were before this moment, that person's turn is over. Now it's your turn. Okay? Okay, you ready to get this par-tay going on?
~ Erin at the beginning of the sophomore year to her students, who by now have undergone a big change in attitude and perspective.
You know what this is? This is a big "f-ck you" to me, and everyone in this class! I don't want excuses. I know what you're up against. We're all of us up against something. So you better make up your mind, because until you have the balls to look me straight in the eye and tell me this is all you deserve, I am not letting you fail, even if that means coming to your house every night until you finish the work. I see who you are. Do you understand me? I can see you. And you are not failing. So, take a minute, pull yourself together and come inside. I want a new evaluation. An "F". What, are you tripping?
~ Erin chastises Andre for giving himself an "F" on his self-evaluation, knowing he's deserving of more.
(Eva: So? Are we gonna be together for junior year?) No. We're gonna be together junior and senior year.
~ Erin announces to the Freedom Writers that she'll be teaching them for the rest of high school, much to their delight.

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