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Richard LaGravenese Headshot

Freedom Banned

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In 1996, Shakespeare's Twelfth Night was removed from classrooms after a school board passed a "prohibition of alternative lifestyle instruction" act. Apparently, a young female character disguised as a boy was a danger to the youth of Merrimack, New Hampshire. Although teenagers in the 80's had survived Boy George, for teenagers in the 90's Shakespeare would have been lethal.

In 1999, at Windsor Forest High School, seniors were required to get adult permission slips before being allowed to read Hamlet, Macbeth or King Lear after the school board pulled them from class reading lists citing adult language, sex and violence.

School boards. Hmmm.

Now, in Perry, Indiana, according to a CNN report broadcast, the Perry Township School Board has suspended a teacher for allowing her students to read The Freedom Writers Diary. A veteran teacher of 27 years, Connie Heermann disobeyed her superiors who told her she may not teach the book. She has been suspended without pay until September 2009. She may not collect unemployment.

The Freedom Writers Diary was a national best seller and a film starring Hilary Swank. It is a collection of diaries -- true life stories told in true-to-life language -- about inner city children struggling to have an education, living with poverty, gang violence, domestic abuse, homelessness and racial intolerance. The boys thought they'd be dead at 18. The girls thought they'd be pregnant by 16. Black, Latino and Asian -- they hated each other on sight, fighting an undeclared war on the streets of Long Beach, California in the years following the LA Riots. None of them ever believed they would graduate high school. At fourteen and fifteen, they had lost hope.

But they did graduate. Many went to college. They became the first in their families to do so. The book is graphic, at times, because it is true. Stories of teens afraid of being killed on the way home from school, or witnessing the murder of a friend while buying candy, makes one understand they're inability to focus on homework once they got home. The book is also inspirational and transformative. I know the Freedom Writers and their teacher Erin Gruwell, intimately, having written and directed the film. They are extraordinary people. Within the course of their four years together, through the creative act of writing these journals, they learned about tolerance and service ... they learned that hope was available to them ...and they learned how to learn. Which is exactly why Connie Heermann gave her students the book.

In the CNN report, the Perry Township representatives cite the bad language in the book. The lawyer for the school board remarks it would serves as a bad role model. I don't know if every member of the school board read the entire book. If they didn't, that wouldn't surprise me. If they did read it, they are banning more than bad language.

Since these teenagers were killing each other in the streets because of racial differences, they were poised to kill each other within Ms. Gruwell's own classroom -- or at least in the schoolyard. To teach her students about the idea of tolerance, Ms. Gruwell taught them about an event they had never heard of before; The Holocaust. Many journals in the book describe the life changing experience these kids had reading The Diary of Anne Frank and visiting the Simon Weisenthal Museum of Tolerance. They also write of an extraordinary visit to their school by Miep Gies, the woman who helped the Franks remain hidden from the Nazis. Some of the more poignant journals describe their overwhelming reaction to Miep Gies, who called them "heroes" because they were fighting to transform their own hatreds. They also raised money to invite a Bosnian teenager, Zlata Filipovic, who had survived her own civil war -- writing her own book Zalta's Diary -- to visit them in Long Beach and share experiences.

These journals and stories have also been banned in the classrooms of the Perry Meridian High School.

The Perry Township School Board apparently believes the use of words like "motherfucker" is a good enough reason to keep teenagers from reading about the extraordinary effect the Holocaust had on these inner city children. Apparently, the Perry Township School Board believe there is no need for their teenagers to learn that when people are living in poverty-level conditions in this country, fighting for their survival -- sometimes in their own homes -- they are sometimes apt to use words like "motherfucker". Erin Gruwell told me when she went to Perry, Indiana to testify for Heermann before the school board, the book was compared to "pornography" and "Hustler magazine".

What's amazes me in the CNN report is that, although Ms. Heermann lost her job for giving the book to her students, the book remains available to everyone in the school library. When CNN reporter Gary Tuchman remarks to School Board President Barbara Thompson how he couldn't believe that the students would be worse off for reading the book -- and questions, is it possible the book could actually make them better for reading it, Thompson responded: "What worries me is that Connie Heermann ... sent a poor message to our children. If you're told no, do it ... it if feels good, do it anyway". She gave no response to the question of the book's value to a student's education.

What message is Ms. Thompson sending? Don't stand for what you believe to be right when faced with limited thinking, or worse, ignorance? Just say yes to censorship? Ms. Heermann disobeyed a direct order because she saw the effect the book was having on her students -- many of whom are bused from poor and dangerous neighborhoods (I wonder what representation they have on the elected school board). Heermann stood for what she believed in. Does Ms. Thompson believe this is a bad role model for teenagers? Was Ms Thompson ever inside the classroom when Freedom Writers was being taught? Does the student's learning experience in the classroom mean anything to the school board of Perry Township ?

During a three month period when the school board gave no decision, Ms. Heermann sent out permission slips to the parents, asking for their permission to let their kids read The Freedom Writers Diary ... Out of 150 permission requests, Ms. Heermann received 149 positive responses. And yet the school board still suspended her.

Erin Gruwell has created a community of dedicated Freedom Writer teachers across the country, using the book. She leads workshops that focus on inspiring teachers to reach students our education system regard as "unteachable". It is all too clear that too many children fall through the cracks of our American education system because they can not conform to the classic, often out-moded, sometimes puritanical, teaching methods and restrictions. Connie Heermann is a Freedom Writer teacher. I believe she represents the best of what dedicated teachers can be because she chose to serve her students, not her school board. Freedom Writer teachers from around the country are donating whatever money they can, to help Heermann obtain legal representation to fight.

I recently received an email from Jan Erik Dubbelman, the director of the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam, informing me they receive comments from schools and youth centers all over the world about Freedom Writers creating open discussions about exclusion, self awareness, racism and freedom. He listed Brazil, Indonesia, South Africa and the West Bank. I know the book is also being read in schools in Germany and Amsterdam. How can it be that in America ... in Indiana ... we do not see the value of the lessons to be learned? How many times, over how many centuries, do Americans like Connie Heermann have to fight for freedom of expression and thought in their own country?

To view the CNN Report, click here.

For more on Erin Gruwell and the Freedom Writers Foundation, click here.