The Hero’s journey almost always begins with an adventure, an exploration of a realm unknown. Mythologist Joseph Campbell calls this the Call of the Calling where in the Hero is lured into the adventurous journey or himself picks it up. Either way he moves out of his comfortable zone of life and travels to an unknown world.
Heroes are usually seen in myths and legends of ancient cults and religions. Jesus was a hero, so was Buddha and Shiva. Heroes are today seen in motion pictures. We have Superman, Spiderman and Batman. But there is a third kind of heroes, the Real Heroes, which inspire all these mythical and fantasy heroes.
The story of the Freedom Writers is the story of a bunch of such heroes led by their lead Heroine Erin Gruwell. Yes, the lead here is a Heroine and not a standard Hero. In fact, her Hero falls short of the heroic capabilities she displays along her journey. They both begin together but her capacity to dedicate herself to her adventure is not met by her Hero. Well, I would say the Hero here is not the right one. Why should a Hero always be the husband. He could also be a father.
Yes that suits Erin better for her father is the greatest Hero of her life. He is a veteran Civil Rights Movement member who had fought for the rights of the American slaves in the 1960’s. That was a century after the great American Civil War against the racial discrimination and Black slavery. Erin’s father was her role model Hero who did the right thing and did it fearlessly despite opposition. She always wants to live a life like her dad’s – a life dedicated to a worth cause.
So when the 1990’s American lands are wrought with violence of the skin colour again, she grabs at the opportunity with both her hands. She convinces her pseudo-Hero, her husband, to voluntarily risk a few years of their lives and do whatever they always wanted to do. She enrols as a teacher for freshman English in one of the schools that was the epicenter of the racial and gang violence at the time. In a feigned support for his wife’s wishes, Erin’s husband agrees but I believe majorly because her father disapproves of her job.
But there is no stopping Erin when she has her mind made up. She saw the present day racial violence rooted itself in the youngsters, teenagers, premature gang members initiated into the world of adult violence a bit too early. As a pre-law, when she wanted to apply to Law school to be able to defend these juveniles in the courtroom, she realised the cases would already be lost even before they entered the courtroom. These kids had to be stopped and protected and redempted at an earlier stage which was the classroom.
She was not alone in thinking this. The authorities running the State schools at the time also realised the importance of proper education in preventing the teenagers actively initiating into the racial gangs.
Soon, she stood before a classroom of an indifferent, subversive teenagers differentiated in their colours but united in their rebellion. It took them to hate her more than they hated each other to atleast strike a respectful conversation in the classroom, weeks after the first class.
That day Erin realised these kids may have coloured their hair gold, left their houses everyday with guns on them, stayed in projects and juvenile halls, were shot and themselves shot multiple times but they were all still kids. They acted like they had grown up and were fighting the wars inherited from their parents of brother in the hood, but they were a long way from realising the outcomes of their actions.
They had grown up too much and too fast. This had called for voids in their adolescent minds. Voids of darkness and hatred where they could not differentiate right from wrong, good from bad, danger form safety, enemies from friends. They were trapped in a maze of lacunas and the violence helped them stay distracted from there crisis. These voids were of pain, loss, death, blood, insecurity that they were carrying fom a very early age.
Erin saw them and recognised them at first glance as the concomitants of the war they did not choose but were born into. She wanted them to realise these voids before she could help them fill the voids up, light it up with truth and good. Standing form a distance she could see how these apparently different faces were all very much similar. They listened to the same music, watched the same movies, travelled around on the same rtoads and in similar cars, had similar friends and enemies. And ofcourse they were similar after all they were not only humans but humans living in close proximity to each other. She could make them realise the irony of their hatred for each other while the hated and the hater were not very different.
She had them initiated on finding similarities between the person that they were and the persons they were hating since eternity with her Line Game. The kids did not see it coming and soon their hard anteriors began to crack.
The kids responded to her words and stopped hiding behind the walls they had built inside them. The walls which Ms G (as she was fondly appellated eventually) was trying to crack with all her might. She was working two jobs, fighting the school administration, living a disturbed perosnal life, expecting more and more from herself so she could meet the expectations and hopes she was giving out to her students. But she did not do all this in a spirit of merely a teacher. She did these in the spirit of the Hero she worshipped as a child – the Hero that comes to save the world from all the wrongs.
Everything that follows suit are absolutely in line with what a very famous Buddhist monk has to say about what can really destroy world terrorism today. He was a peace activist in the war struck Vietnam during its most famous Civil War. His fellow monks had set themselves on fire to stop their people from killing each other anymore. He himself was exiled along with his followers from his country for 4 decades. He was Thich Nhat Hanh and he said that the ability of a man to listen to another man, with an open heart is what would bring the truest. He spoke of Deep Listening as a very potent means of fighting the war against terrorism. The ability to listen deeply and unbiased to the story of the other, to see and only see, not judge or comment but witness. This does not mean accepting anything wrong that accompanies the story. But it means to patiently let all of the story unfold before them and then at another time sit down to fill in the gaps and voids in it.
The greatest peace warrior of our time believes that this is the only way, the way of compassion, that can stop the world from killing itself. When we realise how all men are indeed capable of finding something in common with other men, how can we hate anymore? Too ambitious? Well, I thought so too.
But it is the stories of Heroes like Ms Erin Gruwell that makes us think even this ethereal ambition is indeed possible. Love and compassion can bring the direst of enemies see each other as if reflections in the mirror. It is an old proverb, ‘Be careful of what you hate, for you become that.’
Erin gruwell, Educator and Founder of the Freedom Writers Foundation. The film is based on The Freedom Writers Diary, the New York Times bestseller that chronicled Erin’s extraordinary journey with 150 high school students who had been written off by the education system. Through poignant student entries and Erin’s narrative text, the book records their “eye-opening, spirit-raising odyssey against intolerance and misunderstanding.”