Marie Reyes, one of authors of The Freedom Writers Diary, recently spoke to an overflow Marymount audience on the role that education, especially writing and reading, played in helping her change the direction of her life. The talk was coordinated by Marymount faculty member Dr. Douglas Ball, who is also one of the Freedom Writer teachers, a group dedicated to providing educational opportunities to students who need a second chance.
Maria Reyes, was born in East Los Angeles and comes from a family where gang membership passed from generation to generation. As a young adolescent, she spent time in juvenile hall until a probation officer enrolled her at a Long Beach, California, high school where she ended up in Erin Gruwell’s English class.
That English class changed Maria Reyes’ life. In her recent presentation and book signing, Reyes spoke about the teacher and the class that put her life on a different path. She said, “I was jaded. I didn’t think that there was anything that anyone could teach me about life, and I certainly didn’t believe that Erin Gruwell cared about us. But she kept coming back every day.”
A minor victory came when Gruwell assigned her class to write something, anything down in a journal and not worry about spelling and grammar. Reyes said, “I wrote ‘I hate Erin Gruwell, I hate Erin Gruwell,’ and it came back to me with a smiley face because I had picked up a pencil and written something down.”
That led to an even bigger breakthrough in Reyes’ sophomore year. She recounted, “The class was given four new books, one of which was the Diary of a Young Girl, by Ann Frank. I took it home and started to read it if only to find something to prove Erin Gruwell wrong. And as I read it, I thought here’s the perfect good girl with the perfect family and things always work out for the good people.”
“As I continued to read, I was struck by one sentence. Ann wrote, ‘Sometimes I feel like a bird in a cage and I wish I could fly away.’ That really hit home with me. I kept reading and rooting for Ann because I knew she was going to have a happy ending. And when I came to the end, I cried. Reading her story was a turning point, and I made a powerful choice to see things in a different way. And I also had the realization that I deserved something better. And the path to something better was writing, literacy, and high school graduation.”
That realization came to many in Erin Gruwell’s class, and their journal entries were collected and published as The Freedom Writers Diary, which later became the movie Freedom Writers, and chronicles their backgrounds and the hope that was born from being part of that one class.
Reyes reflected, “I was the first in my family to graduate from high school, and now I’m a college graduate. I got there because someone believed they could make a difference in the life of someone else. But it was my decision to see things in a different way that altered the course of my life. Education changed the history of my family. My father, who was a felon, now has his GED. My six-year old nephew talks about where he wants to go to college, not if he’s going to college. Education opens up the possibility of choosing something different for yourself and your loved ones. Never bet against human potential.”
For Marymount students in the audience, Reyes’ story provides both inspiration and practical advice on how to reach young people and get them excited about learning.
Photo 1 – Maria Reyes chats with Diego Villarroel at the book signing, following her presentation.
Photo 2 – Maria Reyes