Monday, August 13, 2007

The Freedom Writers

Image: Nineteenth century journal of my great grandfather, Thomas W. Russell

I like a book or movie which puts into words and pictures something that I have difficulty expressing myself. And that is why I really enjoyed the recent video, "The Freedom Writers". An idealistic, young teacher, who grew up in a gated communty, puts on her pearl necklace and begins her first day trying to teach an ethnically diverse class of students in Los Angeles. A black kid comes into the classroom dribbling a basketball and boisterously takes a seat. The troubles start from here and proceed to the students expressing their anger and disrespect for the white teacher who could not possibly relate to their life in the hood- particularly during the racial tensions which followed the beating of Rodney King. But the teacher, who is Erin Gruel in real life, pulls her energy and enthusiasm together to get the students to write out their anger and frustration in diaries. She purchases the blank notebooks out of her own pocket. Eventually, she takes on a second job to pay for field trips and noncurriculum books, like "The Diary of Anne Frank. The roudy students, who have intolerance problems of their own, had never heard of the Holocaust. The video also presents a second, ancillary story. The teacher strives and succeeds but she has little time and energy to give to her marriage. In a tearful confrontation with her husband, she says "I really liked the idea [of marriage]". The marriage fails. Which begs the question: Can one have both a busy, successful career and a good marriage. That would be a another story. Incidentally, I was married to a teacher and was also a teacher myself for a few years.

At the end of the movie the vastly changed and inspired students not only want to stay in school and graduate, but they publish their diaries as a class project- and the Freedom Writers Project begins and continues to this day.

However, this is the passage that really spoke to me: "[Our teacher] told us we had something to say to people. We weren't just kids in a class anymore. We were writers with our own voices, our own stories; and even if nobody else read it, the book would be something to leave behind us that says we were here. THIS is what happened. WE mattered even if was just to each other. And we won't forget."

Often, I feel very lonely and ineffective and just throwing words into the air when I write about our family history. Afterall, I am trying to interest somebody, anybody, my own family, in knowing a little about our family history. How we came to be here in America. The fact that I find our history interesting does not mean that others will. Genealogy, especially, is not everybody's bag, as I've been told in no uncertain terms- by my own relatives, distant though they were. But this is not just dates and names or who descended from who, it's about real lives of real people.

My great grandfather, Thomas W. Russell, born in the coal mining fields of Scotland, was so grateful that he could purchase a book of blank pages to write a few sentences sporadically over a 5 year period, but he brought the journal to America and kept it for another 40 years until his death. He wrote about the deaths of his two first-born daughers, probably of typhoid (meaning unsanitary living conditions):

"... we ware idel [out of work] 8 months and that was a sorryful year to me. We lost our daughter Jane Ann. Bliss hir. She was a fine daughter to us and loving one but we hope to met hir again, God bing willing."

He wrote about the News items of the day which interested him- collapse of the Tay bridge in Scotland; a suicide in the coal fields; Giant Trees in America:

"... The largest tree in the world there is at present on exhibition in New York a section of tree which has been brought form California. ..."

Did Thomas immigrate to America just so he could see such giant trees? I doubt if he saw them, but he did see similar wild forests when he first settled in Pennsylvania.

More on Thomas W. Russell's journal.

So, as the Freedom Writers finally realized, my great grandfather had something to say. I have something to say. You have something to say. And we will write it down because we are (were) here ... and this is how it happened.

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