Sebastian Hurshman admits he isn’t much of a reader.
But when the 17-year-old opened up the non-fiction book “The Freedom Writers Diary” for the first time, he couldn’t tear his eyes away. He devoured every page, front to back.
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He wasn’t the only one.
Students in his English class at Blue Springs High School were so passionate about the book that they raised money to hold a Skype session with Erin Gruwell, whose work with disadvantaged students resulted in the publication of the book.
The book focuses on Gruwell’s triumph 20 years ago as a Long Beach, Calif., high school teacher who inspired and changed the lives of her at-risk students, many of whom were struggling with abuse, poverty, gang life, and learning disabilities.
Using a diary writing assignment and teaching about the Holocaust, Gruwell was able to open the eyes of students who never imagined they would graduate from high school, much less attend college.
The California students’ journals were incorporated into the book that the Blue Springs juniors found so meaningful.
During her Skype session Friday, the bubbly author-turned-activist discussed those themes and answered more than a dozen questions about topics like her career, the 2007 Hilary Swank movie based on her experience, and also about life in general.
Overcoming bullying was one of her most prominent messages.
“We’ve seen so many kids in this country bullied to the brink of taking their own lives,” Gruwell told the students. “It’s tough to be 15 or 16 and feel all alone in the world, carrying so many burdens on your shoulders. Finally realizing you’re not alone is the best feeling in the world.”
Talking with Gruwell made for an incredible end to the school year, Hurshman declared.
A lot of the issues she discussed—such as depression, substance abuse, sex and loneliness—resonated with him.
“We live in a society where by freshman year, girls get pregnant and guys turn to drugs,” he said. “It doesn’t matter if you’re a teenager in Blue Springs or in Long Beach. Every teenager —every person — can relate to these topics on so many different levels.”
Hearing Gruwell’s story from her own lips was a magical moment for his teacher, Mary Woods, as well.
“She’s an absolute hero,” said Woods. “She took students who absolutely hated each other and got them to not only get along, but go to college. That’s inspiring not just for teachers, but the entire world.”
The feeling of deep respect was mutual.
“I’m madly in love with your class,” Gruwell told Woods, teary-eyed, after the Q&A session. “And as a teacher, you are a superhero. I wish I could be in class to give each and every one of your students a hug.”
After the Skype session ended, the students were treated to a pizza party, courtesy of local generosity. The pizza was donated by Dominos, salad was donated by Olive Garden, and cookies were donated by Price Chopper.
And even though it was a delicious end to the morning, the students couldn’t quite get Gruwell’s words out of their minds.
“I feel really lucky that we got to speak with Erin in person,” said Amanda Connors, 17. “It’s amazing to know that there are people like her out there who actually care and make a difference in this world. It’s inspiring.”