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Third General Session

Freedom Writer Witnesses Own Miracle

Four years ago, Erin Gruwell told her story. This time, it was Manuel Scott’s turn.

Gruwell is the Long Beach, California, high school teacher who transformed a failing inner-city classroom into a writing laboratory that resulted in the publication of the book, “The Freedom Writer’s Diary,” and a theatrical movie, “Freedom Writers,” starring Hillary Swank.

Gruwell was a general session speaker at the 2006 Joint Annual Conference. Manuel Scott was one of the original Freedom Writers who met Gruwell – or “Miss G” as he and his classmates called her – in his sophomore year.

Like all 150 of the original freedom writers who defied the odds, Scott graduated from high school. Like most of his classmates, he went on to get a bachelor’s degree. And like some, a master’s as well. This fall, he began work on his doctorate.

But Scott’s story – which he also told in song and poem – didn’t begin with success.

Born into a “beautiful but broken” family, his father was imprisoned for most of his life. His stepfather was an addict and alcoholic and routinely abused Scott’s mother and the children.

The family lived on the mean streets of Los Angeles. Scott said they moved 26 times by the time he was 16, not counting the occasions when they were homeless and living on the beach, in alleys, cars, or shelters. They literally lived hand to mouth, dining out of fast food dumpsters or food pantries.

He joined the street gangs, learned how to steal cars, burglarize homes, and use drugs and alcohol. Scott said he routinely missed 60 to 90 days of school per year and when he finally did enroll in high school, he was classified as an ESL student.

Scott’s first semester resulted in a .6 GPA, with all Fs and one D. In his second semester, his best friend was killed – strangled, stabbed and thrown off a cliff. “When he died, something died in me. I thought that people like me were supposed to fail,” he said.

He credited a chance meeting with a man in a park and his later placement in Erin Gruwell’s class for turning his life around.

“He told me that I could be the man I never met and the father I never knew…all I needed to do was to make a choice,” Scott said. By sharing his faith with him and begging Scott to go back to school, Scott said he finally realized that he could decide how he responded to his circumstances.

He spent the second semester of his sophomore year studying and working with tutors and he earned A’s and Bs for the first time.

The rest of his address to the Third General Session of the 2010 Joint Annual Conference on Sunday, Nov. 21, related how the Freedom Writers came about and how Gruwell integrated rap music with classic literature to engage the students.

He related his final message in Greek, Hebrew and English: “I didn’t come to impress you; I came to impress upon you that when you see me, you can catch a glimpse of what can become of every single child. I beg you to go back and do what needs to be done,” Scott told the audience to a standing ovation.

The Third General Session closed the 2010 conference, but not before awards were presented for the Superintendent of the Year (Robert Gillum), the Thomas Lay Burroughs Award for Outstanding School Board President (Paula Dupont), and the Holly Jack Outstanding Service Award to a board secretary (Mary Ellen McElligott).

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