We're just over the half way mark in the school year. We’ve read about 1/3 of “The Freedom Writers Diary – How a Teacher and 150 Teens Used Writing to Change Themselves and the World Around Them,” by Erin Gruwell and her students at Wilson High School. (You may remember the movie, “Freedom Writers,” based on Gruwell and her experiences as a teacher.) As we have read this book I am more and more impressed with Ms. Gruwell and her students. Their experiences were amazing and have touched me deeply. Many of them have touched my students as well.
There have been highs and lows accompanying our reading and journaling this year. The highs were the class discussions and student journaling about race, discrimination, families, gangs, fitting in, choosing the right, homelessness, and the dangers of drug and alcohol use. I discovered I have several students with fathers in prison, with families who are or have been homeless; twelve year old students who drink and experiment with drugs, and have been or are in gangs. While shy at first, some of them have opened up and were honest about their lives and experiences. We have cried together, laughed together, and had many good discussions about the entries.
The lows were my students either not wanting to or not being able to put themselves in someone else’s shoes. Lows were also when they wanted to hear the stories, but not write a reflection on them (or do anything else that day), and when they made fun of students’ entries. Some of them have little patience with any of the smart kids who write diary entries in the book. I don’t know if it’s out of jealousy, fear or ignorance, maybe all three.
I wonder if I’m as unable to put myself in their shoes as they are in mine. Maybe my white, upper middle class, LDS upbringing has put blinders on my eyes as well. I fight to change myself and see things from their point of view, but I am frustrated with my students who have chosen drugs, alcohol, or emulating gangsters as a way of life. No matter what warnings or examples the book or I give them about avoiding “a life of drugs and crime,” some of them are still drawn to it. I could pull my hair out when I see the possible future of B---- or K-----, knowing they may end up dropouts or addicted to drugs, wasting their brains and talent.
I struggle to help my students see the world is about more than the apartments they live in or the block they live on. It’s about more than being rich or poor, more than their race or nationality, more than fighting to prove who’s the toughest girl in 7th grade or wearing the “uniform” of a gangster. It’s about learning, teaching, working, looking forward and upward. It’s about being yourself and having hope for more than just surviving. I have hope for them. They have so much talent and possibility.
Our family enjoys riding. To start the year off right we went riding in our favorite place, the Logandale Trails area. There are dunes, whoop-dee-doos, rough camping, day camping, trails to follow, and (we had heard but never verified) petroglyphs. We spent time on our last trip there looking for petroglyphs, but never found them. This time, by pure luck, we did.
As I stood in front of hundreds to thousands of year old petroglyphs, my heart raced. I have been a long-time seeker of what I’ll call, “The Legacy.” To me The Legacy means leaving your mark on the world in a way that you will never be forgotten. Finding a way to leave a message or mark for someone to see, read, or hear about a thousand years from now amazes me. It’s a way to live on even after you’re gone.
I’ll never forget crossing a rock path over a stream in England some years ago. The family I was staying with mentioned it was from Roman times. I remember gasping in shock. Many of the castles and homes we saw were also ancient. I couldn’t get enough of it. Growing up in a town that is barely 100+ years old in country where few human-made things are more than a couple of hundred years old seems wrong somehow. The soldiers and engineers who laid those rocks across that stream in England probably never dreamed 2,000 years later people would still be using them. When I was growing up I thought The Legacy meant being a famous musician or rock star. In college I thought it meant marrying a famous Mormon guy (Steve Young . . . sigh). I’ve considered The Legacy to possibly be writing a best selling book, saving the world single-handedly by identifying a terrorist plot, teaching the next Einstein how to read and write, becoming wealthy and having a building named after me, creating a world-renown recipe, and on and on.
The people who created the petroglyphs at the Logandale Trails lived, loved, and died near my city. They were the artists of their day, both graffiti and otherwise, leaving their mark or story behind for others to see. (My tagger students remind me of this when I chew them out for tagging walls.) I doubt that these Native Americans even dreamed a thousand years in the future people would see these pictures, much less envy what they left behind. When I look at those pictures I wonder what they felt when they made them. How did they live? How did they die? I want someone to look at something I’ve created a thousand years from now and know I was here. I want to be remembered.
This week we lost our Gram to cancer. She was 86 and a firecracker. We thought she’d outlive us all, she was so stubborn and strong. After we pack up her things to keep and to donate, I wonder if any of it will survive for a thousand years. Who will know she lived here, had a family, influenced people, and shared a life with us? Will our memories and stories we wrote down last? Will the pictures we took?
I pondered this tonight, surrounded by my sisters, brothers, parents, and everyone’s kids. Then I thought maybe The Legacy is more than leaving something tangible behind. Maybe it means passing on my straight hair or hazel eyes or my love of cooking. Maybe it means teaching my children to be kind, instead of harsh. Maybe it means believing in a God I haven’t seen, and sharing my beliefs with others. I don’t know exactly.
Whatever legacy I leave, it will influence generations to come. They may never know I existed, but my influence, like my Gram’s, will still be felt.