With support from my principal, other staff and community members who want to see better futures for local kids, the students of Room 5C yesterday received a visit from one Ms. Maria Reyes, Freedom Writer. If you have seen the movie, she's the one the character of Eva was based on. Jumped into a Latino gang before she was even 10, Maria became "third generation", meaning both her father and grandfather were in the same gang, believing it was what was necessary to protect and provide for their families. As she puts it, she was raised "a warrior". Otherwise, there might not be heat or food in the house. (Folks like David Brooks, who seem to think poverty in America means not being able to afford the newest Air Jordans, might do well to take note.)
To prepare for her visit, we spent the day prior making a welcome banner and generating a list of questions the kids wanted to ask her. Most of them wanted to know how she left the gang (after all, it's not like they just let you walk away) and how she found the courage to tell the truth on the witness stand and admit it was her friend and fellow gang member who had shot a bystander one night in a convenience store, not the rival gang kid who had actually been charged with the murder. That was the beginning of the end of her gang association, and ever since, she's reached out to kids who have been struggling with similar issues. To answer their question, she said that "when you know better, you choose better." She related the courage she found on the witness stand to risk her life by telling the truth to the power of education, specifically to the power of words and writing to help you find your own voice. Once education had helped her find her own voice, she said, it wasn't so hard to do "the right thing just because it was the right thing to do". (I loved that Maria was quoting Miep Gies here, the woman who risked her life to shelter Anne Frank and her family during the Holocaust.) My students had all written her letters asking her to comee, and she made a point of telling the kids that it was those letters that convinced her to make time for us. An audience for a young writer can hardly get more real!
Maria is warm and passionate in person, and she directly challenged my kids to not blame others for the choices they've made. That, I think, is the beginning of freedom. My favorite moment was when one of my students responded to Maria by saying that was being a "true warrior". If there is such a thing as "assessing" peace education, that's what it looks like. She'd truly internalized what Maria was trying to say.