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A young teacher inspires her class of at-risk students to learn tolerance, apply themselves, and pursue education beyond high school.
Erin Gruwell: The evaluation assignment was to grade yourself on the work you're doing. You gave yourself an F. What's that about? Andre: It's what I feel I deserve, that's all. Erin Gruwell: Oh really? [pause] Erin Gruwell: You know what this is? This is a Fuck 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.
Erin Gruwell: 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 will put you all to shame. And they started out poor and angry and everybody looked down on them. Until one man decided to give them some pride, an identity... and somebody to blame. You take over neighborhoods? That's nothing compared to them. They took over countries. You want to know how? They just wiped out everybody else. 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 print pictures like this in the newspapers, jewish people with big, long noses... blacks with big, fat lips. They'd also published scientific evidence that proved that 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 matter if 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.
Andre: Justice doesn't mean the bad guy goes to jail, it just means that someone pays for the crime.
Miep Gies: But even an ordinary secretary or a housewife or a teenager can, within their own small ways, turn on a small light in a dark room.
Marcus: That Miep Gies lady, the one that help hide her, I like her. I got all these other books about her from the library. Erin Gruwell: Wow, you used your library card? Marcus: Nah...
[while playing the Line Game, in which Erin makes the class reveal that they have more in common than they care to admit] Erin Gruwell: Who has been to jail or a juvenile hall? Sindy: Does a refugee camp count? Erin Gruwell: You decide. [Sindy stands on the line]
Eva: White people wanting respect like they deserve it for free. Erin Gruwell: I'm a teacher, it doesn't matter what color I am. Eva: It's all about color, it's about people deciding what you deserve, about people wanting what they don't deserve. About whites thinking they own this world no matter what, you see, I hate white people. Erin Gruwell: You hate me? You don't even know me. Eva: I know what you can do. I saw white cops shoot my friend in the back for reaching into his pocket, his pocket! I saw white cops come into my house and take my father away for no REASON except they feel like it! Except because they can! And they can, because they're white. So I HATE white people on sight!
Brandy: In every war, there is an enemy. I watched my mother being hlaf-beaten to death, and watched as bloodand tears streamed down her face. I felt useless and scared, and furious at the same time. I can still feel the sting of the belt on my back and my legs. One time he couldn't pay the rent. That night he stopped us on the street and pointed to the concrete. He said, "pick a spot."
Marcus: I've never had a hero before. But you are my hero. Miep Gies: Oh, no. No, no, no, young man, no. I am not a hero. No. I did what I had to do, because it was the right thing to do. That is all.
[following Erin's impassioned speech about the Nazi Holocaust] Tito: [raises hand] What's a holocaust? Erin Gruwell: Who here knows what the Holocaust is? [all keep their hands down except Ben, the only white kid, who sheepishly raises his] Erin Gruwell: Who here has ever been shot at? [all raise their hands except Ben, who lowers his]
Erin Gruwell: Does anyone know Homer's the Odyssey? Andre: I know Homer the Simpson.
Erin Gruwell: But to get respect you have to give it. Andre: Bullshit. Erin Gruwell: What? Andre: Why should I give you my respect to you? Because you're a teacher? I don't know you. How do I know you're not a liar standing up there. How do I know you're not a bad person standing up there? I'm not just gonna give you my respect because you're called a teacher. Eva: White people wanting their respect like its for free.
Brandy: Nobody ever listens to a teenager. Everybody thinks you should be happy just because you're young. They don't see the wars that we fight every single day. And one day, my war will end. And I won't die. And I will not tolerate abuse from anyone. I am strong.
Eva: In America, a girl can be crowned a princess for her beauty, and her grace. But an Aztec princess is chosen for her blood. To fight for her people as Papi and his father fought, against those who say we are less than they are, against those who say that we are not equal in beauty or blessings.
Margaret Campbell: You can't make someone want education.
Gloria: If you look in my eyes, you'll see a lonely girl. If you like at my smile, you'll see nothing wrong. If you pull up my shirt, you'll see the bruises. What did I do to make him so mad?
Marcus: Clive was my boy. He had my back plenty of times. Me and him was like one fist. One army. [Clive pulls a gun out of a paper bag and accidentally shoots himself] Marcus: I sat there until the police came. But when they come, all they see is a dead body, a gun, and a nigger. They took me to juvenile hall. First night was the scariest. Inmates banging on the walls, throwing up gang signs, yelling out who they were and where they from. I cried my first night. I never let anybody know that. I spent the next few years in and out of cells. Every day I worry, when will I be free?
Marcus: Lady, stop acting like you tryin' to understand our situation, and just do your little babysitting up there. Erin Gruwell: That's what you think this is? Marcus: It ain't nothing else. When I look out in the world I don't see nobody that looks like me with their pockets full unless they're rapping a lyrics or dribbling a ball, so what else you got in here for me? Erin Gruwell: And what if you can't rap a lyric or dribble a ball? Andre: It ain't this. Marcus: I know that's right. Erin Gruwell: And you all think you're gonna make it to graduation like this? Andre: I made it to HIGH school ain't nobody stop me. Marcus: Lady I'm lucky if I make it to 18, we in a war! We graduating every day we live because we ain't afraid to die, protecting our own. At least when you die for your own, you die with respect, you die a warrior.
Eva: So when's Anne Frank gonna smoke Hitler?
Miep Gies: You are the heroes. You are heroes every day.
Marcus: No, that don't fly Ma. Erin Gruwell: First of all I'm not anybody's mother. Andre: No, that's not what it means. Eva: It's a sign of respect... for you.
Erin Gruwell: So when you're dead, you'll get respect, that what you think? [murmurs of 'yeah' from the class] Erin Gruwell: You know what's gonna happen when you die? You're gonna rot in the ground, and people are going to go on living, and they're going to forget all about you. And when you ROT, do you think it's gonna matter whether you were an original gangsta? You're dead, and nobody, NOBODY, is gonna want to remember you, because all you left in the world is this. [holds up Tito's drawing]
Ben: Ms. G, we can fight this y'know, like the Freedom Riders. Marcus: Yeh yeh, we all drive around on a bus, only this time they try and bust us up we bust a few of them board member's heads. Brandy: Or we can go to the newspapers. Media...? Tito: Or we can paint the administration building with the word assholes, in various colours.
Sindy: During the war in Cambodia, the camps stripped away my father's dignity. He sometimes tries to hurt me and my mom. I feel like I have to protect my family.
Andre: My brother taught me what the life is for a young black man. Pimp, deal, whatever. Learn what colors to wear. Gang banners. You can sell to one corner, but you can't sell another. Learn to be quiet. The wrong word can get you popped.
Jamal: At sixteen, I've seen more bodies than a mortician. Every time I step out my door I face the risk of being shot. To the rest of the world it's just another dead body on a street corner. They don't know that he was my friend.
Alejandro: I was having trouble deciding what candy I wanted. Then I heard gunshots. I looked down to see that one of my friends had blood coming from his back and his mouth. The next day I pulled down my shirt and got strapped with a gun I found in an alley outside my house.
Erin Gruwell: Your bags are packed and you think the wine will give me a headache?
Andre: She can't even look at me because I look like my dad.
Margaret Campbell: You're an honor student. If you transfer to Mrs. Gruwell's class, think how that'll reflect on your records. Victoria: It doesn't matter to me, my grades will still be the same. Look, Ms. Campbell, when I first transferred to this school, I had a 4.0 average. But when I applied for advanced placement in English and Math, I was told it'd be better for me to be in a class of my own kind. Now, when I did get in, my teacher said "Victoria! It's not everyday one finds an African American student in AP and Honors courses!"... As if I didn't notice. And when I asked another Honors teacher why we don't read more black literature, she said, "We don't read black literature because of all the sex, drugs, cussing, and fornication". I thought a simple... "It's inappropriate"... would have sufficed.
Erin Gruwell: I love you. Steve Gruwell: You love the idea of me.
Eva: I don't even know how this war started. It's just two sides that tripped each other way back. Who cares about the history behind it? I am my father's daughter, and when they call me to testify, I will protect my own, no matter what.
Tito: Nobody cares what I do. Why should I bother coming to school?
Jamal: Man, what am I DOIN' in here, man? This ol' ghetto ass class got people in here lookin' like a bad rerun of cops!
Andre: It's the dumb class cuz. It means you too dumb. Jamal: Man, say it to my face cuz. Andre: I just did. See what I mean? Dumb?
Gloria: Miss Gruwell, he just took my damn bag!
Erin Gruwell: An F? What,are ya trippin'?
Eva: My PO doesn't understand that schools are like the city and the city is jut like a prison.
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