– Mélanie Leblanc
On Thursday, March 27th Heritage Lower Saint Lawrence invited the author Darrius Garrett, a member of the original Freedom Writers class, to be a guest speaker at the Métis-sur-Mer public library as part of his Canadian book tour.
The Freedom Writers were a group of students from Long Beach, California, along with their teacher Erin Gruwell. Together, they wrote the non-fiction book The Freedom Writers Diary: How a Teacher and 150 Teens Used Writing to Change Themselves and the World Around Them. It is the basis of the 2007 movie Freedom Writers, starring Hilary Swank. The Freedom Writers Diary is made up of journal entries that Erin Gruwell asked all her students to write, about whatever was important to them, about their past, present and future.
Gruwell developed unique teaching techniques that helped her students connect with each other and with their own identity as youth living in the powder keg which was mid-1990s Los Angeles. To this day, the Freedom Writers Foundation continues the work with exercises and approaches similar to those Gruwell used in the original class, inspiring “young, underprivileged students to pick up pens instead of guns”. It also tracks the progress of the original and continuing classes, including many who have gone on to share this message both at home and abroad.
The evening with Mr. Garrett started with a reading of the first chapter of the author’s first book, Diary of a Freedom Writer which, according to the author, gives us perspective about how he ended up in Ms. Gruwell’s class. The book is a personal account of Mr. Garrett’s youth including where he is from, his reality, growing up in a neighbourhood divided into gang territories, feeling worthless and being introduced to crime. These experiences culminated with homelessness at the age of 13 when his mother kicked him out for being involved with a gang.
It is after living on the streets for a few months that he met Erin Gruwell, the teacher who would come to change his life. About Ms. Gruwell, Mr. Garrett has only kind words: “She embraced me, she accepted me,” he says, “She wrote the forward to my book and I still have her on speed dial.” According to Mr. Garrett, Erin Gruwell made a conscious decision not to give up on him, to believe in him even though he had given up on himself.
Throughout the evening, Darrius Garrett shared his life and his thoughts. He also enthusiastically answered questions and participated in the informal discussion that followed. He showed curiosity and a keen interest in the reality of living in Métis-sur-Mer. He underlined his belief in the importance of helping youth stay in school, saying: “knowledge and curiosity are two very powerful tools to get a good start in life.”
For Mr. Garrett, his life experiences help him connect to youth today, wherever they live and whatever they are going through: “There are similarities between all youth. Feelings of not being good enough and bullying are universal themes that so many of them struggle with, whether they live in Long Beach, CA or Métis-sur-Mer, QC.”
Mr. Garrett uses a similar analogy with the story of Anne Frank, whom he refers to as an inspiration. “She didn’t live in my neighbourhood, or look like me, or listen to any of the same music, but there are similarities between what she experienced in the Second World War, and what I’ve gone through,” says Mr. Garrett, “Being secluded, struggling to survive in a war zone, hiding in fear for your life. These are the things we have in common. We were both involved in a war; I could have been a casualty too.”
Mr. Garrett, who was recently diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), admits that he has always struggled with mental health. It took a lot of courage for Mr. Garrett to ask for help as mental health problems are seen as something of a taboo for men in his family and in his neighbourhood. He explained that fear of judgment was the main obstacle: “Where I come from, admitting to struggling with mental health is always seen as a sign of weakness, especially for men. But one of the most important things I ever did was precisely to decide to talk about it, to get help.”
“I used to have panic attacks, and I developed a heart condition as a result of the stress I was under. Getting help for my PTSD became a life or death issue for me,” he adds, “It took a long time to finally decide to take medication for this but now that I have, my life has changed. I’m more in control and realize that everyone is different, unique. I’m glad to be who I am, PTSD and all.” Mr. Garrett states that finding the right person to talk to, like a psychiatrist, is crucial: “Not just anyone will be a good fit. You have to find the right person for you, which is what happened to me.”
His message to youth is one of perseverance: “You can do what you want to do if you truly put your mind to it and really work hard for it. Things don’t come easily to all, and it takes practice and effort for most people to be successful at what it is they want to do.” Mr. Garrett believes success is measured not by the figure in your bank account – provided you are economically stable – but by what you do to help others, because the impact you have on others will last. “You can’t focus on just being good at something, you have to focus on being great, on being your own captain and always growing, improving,” he says.
Mr. Garrett spoke about leaving a legacy, or a positive impact on others. To him, “You benefit more from being a person of service than a person being serviced.” To the group who came to hear him, he revealed himself to be a kind, curious, generous man who has a genuine love of people.
“If you look at people who have made a difference in the world, money did not save their lives. Success is a person leaving their mark in the world by making it better for others. For that, you need to love people; you need compassion, not just talent.”
Darrius Garrett’s Book, Diary of a Freedom Writer, is available to borrow from the Métis-sur-Mer Public Library.
For more information about the Freedom Writers and their outreach program in schools, visit: freedomwritersfoundation.org