‘Miss G’ takes a bow

The Orange County Register
One day you’re a high school teacher, selling bras at MainPlace on weekends so you can buy books for your street-tough students because no one else believes in them.

The next, Academy Award winner Hilary Swank is playing you on the big screen.

When the movie “Freedom Writers” hits theaters Jan. 12, Erin Gruwell may well become the next Erin Brockovich.

Instead of fighting a power plant polluter, she takes on the stubborn public education system. Instead of saving residents from toxins, she saves kids from life in the ‘hood.

The details may differ, but the story line is the same: Feisty woman sees injustice and simply will not go away until it is rectified.

The same team of producers that made the 2000 blockbuster “Erin Brockovich” took on Gruwell’s story after reading “The Freedom Writers Diary,” published in 1999.

A-list actresses Reese Witherspoon, Cameron Diaz, Kate Winslet and Kate Hudson reportedly lined up for the meaty role of Gruwell. In the end, Paramount went with Hilary Swank.

Gruwell says Swank was always her first choice. “She looks like me. She talks like me. She fought fiercely to get this role,” she says.

The two met over lunches and dinners so Swank could get inside Gruwell’s head, study her mannerisms.

Several weeks ago, the Lido Theater in Newport Beach showed a private, advance screening of the movie to 600 Freedom Writer friends, colleagues and admirers (including Baseball Hall of Famer Rod Carew and a Who’s Who of Orange County CEOs). The movie ended to a standing ovation. Afterward, in front of the theater, Gruwell was mobbed. Swank had nailed the part, was the consensus.

The two women still e-mail each other. “I just really like her,” Gruwell says. “She doesn’t put on airs. I think she’ll be a friend for life.”

Gruwell also praises director Richard LaGravanese for sticking to the real-life story. But then, it’s a story that doesn’t need embellishment.

Gruwell is a perky, white, student teacher fresh out of UC Irvine (think Mary Poppins with a ponytail and string of pearls) when she walks into her first class at Wilson High School in Long Beach a year after the 1992 L.A. riots.

She is met with a mixed-race collection of wisecracking kids with bad grades and broken homes.

They basically hate her.

But instead of returning their contempt or just writing the kids off (as some fellow teachers suggest), she dares them to prove to the world that they’re not the boneheads people think they are.

After one particularly tense moment in which she catches students passing around an offensive caricature of an African-American boy in the class, she ditches the curriculum to spend the rest of the year teaching tolerance.

By taking night and weekend jobs selling bras at Nordstrom and working the concierge desk at the Fashion Island Marriott, Gruwell buys the kids their own copies of “The Diary of Anne Frank” and takes them one weekend to see “Schindler’s List” at the Lido Theater (which is why the advance screening was held there).

Then she writes a letter to “Schindler’s List” director Steven Spielberg, finagling a private audience for her students. An emotional visit to the Museum of Tolerance tears down whatever walls remained.

By now Gruwell is “Miss G”: friend, mother, shrink. Her classroom becomes a hangout, often into the evenings.

For one assignment, the students write letters to Miep Gies, the woman who hid Anne Frank in her attic during the Holocaust, inviting her to fly to Wilson High from Amsterdam (at age 87) to meet the class. Incredibly, Gies agrees. The kids spend months raising funds to pay for the trip.

Next they write letters to Zlata Filipovic, the Sarajevo girl who published diaries about war in her homeland, persuading her to fly to Long Beach.

Then Gruwell thinks, “Well, why can’t my kids write diaries about their own private wars?” And 150 young authors are born.

They write about the father who left them, the uncle who molested them, the mother who kicked them out – the teacher who believed in them.

The payoff: Gruwell lands a publishing deal for all 150 students, and “The Freedom Writers Diary” sells a quarter-million copies (and counting).

In the meantime, every one of the 150 graduate from high school, and most go on to college.

Sound like a movie yet?

Of course every good story has an antagonist.

In this one, there isn’t a lone Cruella De Vil. But Gruwell says that during her years teaching high school, from ’93 to ’98, she met with her share of jealous teachers, skeptical administrators and other assorted killjoys.

An amalgamation of the naysayers takes shape in several fictitious characters invented by the screenwriter for dramatic effect.

But the Freedom Writers depicted in the movie are very real, Gruwell says. In fact, their diary entries (read in voice-overs) are taken verbatim from their book. And the Holocaust survivors who dine with the students at the Marriott in one scene are cameos by the real survivors they dined with years ago.

Gruwell says her only wish is that her dad, an Angels scout and Orange County golf course fixture who died three years ago, could have seen the film. “He was my biggest supporter,” she says.

This week, Gruwell, who just bought her first house (in Sunset Beach), is traveling the country with a handful of Freedom Writers, speaking at advance screenings.

Sharaud Moore, the boy who was caricatured back in ’93, was at the Lido showing. He had been booted from another Long Beach high school for taking a gun to school before landing in Gruwell’s class. Today he is a teacher at Poly High, the very high school he was thrown out of.

Gruwell sees the movie as a platform to talk about education reform – the need to realize that kids are not one-size-fits-all when it comes to learning.

“At the end of the day, it’s not about me,” she says. “It’s really bigger than that.”

She and a group of Freedom Writers have given more than 1,000 presentations in 45 states, meeting with educators and students from farms to inner cities to juvenile halls.

At 37, Gruwell just finished writing her memoir, “Teach With Your Heart, What I Leaned From the Freedom Writers,” which will arrive in bookstores three days before the movie comes out.

The other night as she and her boyfriend, Wahoo’s Fish Taco owner Wing Lam, dined at a Belmont Shore restaurant, a waitress cautiously approached.

“Are you Erin Gruwell?” the girl asked.

It’s only the beginning.

CONTACT US: To watch the movie preview, see www.freedomwriters.com or freedomwritersfoundation.org Information: 562-433-5388