Discussion of Grammar in The Freedom Writers Diary

I have been reading The Freedom Writers Diary for the first time because I am student teaching in a classroom with a teacher who is using this book to help talk about social justice. The Freedom Writers Diary is a compilation of diaries from Room 203 of Wilson High School in Long Beach, California during the early 90s. Together, the book tells about an optimistic (white) teacher who helps her (mostly non-white) forsaken students to make connections with texts by relating their lives with the characters, including Anne Frank. A more complete synopsis can be found on Goodreads.

Although many have criticized this book for perpetuating a savior complex among white people (and I have some slight hesitation on that matter as well), I find that it’s still a touching and inspiring account of a teacher who believes in her students. I’m not going to address that topic right now, though, because I think that there’s enough commentary out there on that topic. I recently found a comment about how a reader was disappointed that the book’s diaries were not published in their original formats, “spelling and grammar mistakes and all.” Another comment spoke of how the diaries all sound like they’re written in the same voice. I know that this conversation has most likely been going on since this book’s publication, but I have to ask: What would have happened if these diaries had been published in their original format? What would that format look like (scanned copies of notebooks, diaries typed up directly from the students, etc.)? How would the book have been received in that original format?

I’m playing the Devil’s advocate here only because I can see where this argument comes from–the language used in the diaries is advanced and uniform. Not at all like an original draft of anything done by multiple people.

But I suppose that’s my point: if you knew that your writing was going to be printed in a book later, wouldn’t you want to revise it? I’m not sure if the students were told that they were going to publish their diaries into a book from the get-go (probably not…), but once they found out that publication was an option I’m sure that many students wanted a chance to look at their writing before sending it out into the world. Public opinion aside, it becomes a matter of how the students want to be represented to the world in their writing. What if there was something they didn’t mean to say, or a point that could have been made clearer through organization? And if you’ve had a chance to review it, you’ve probably revised it, which means that even after a first round of revision the current draft is already no longer the “original” draft. And maybe Ms. Gruwell helped them revise, because that’s what a teacher does?

Now’s a sticky part: what does the publisher do to these entries? Does he/she keep the book in its pure form, trusting in readers to get beyond high school writing (which has the potential to be perceived as difficult reading) to see the main inspiring drive of the book? Or does he/she recommend edits and return it to its authors so that A) the average reader needn’t struggle with the general mechanics of high school writing and B) the audience doesn’t get so caught up in errors that the main point is lost?

Now, I think that revision sans uniformity across the diaries might have happened if some slang vocabulary or colloquialisms were allowed to remain. As it is, though, there are some remnants of candid writing hallmarks: there are some entries were organization is not on point, where there are slang words (i.e. “mad-dogging”), etc. Some things were allowed to remain, but I’m sure that plenty of the writing changed while keeping the meaning intact (I hope). Might the lack of writing errors make the story less believable or less impactful, or might the presence of spelling/grammar errors make it more believable and impactful?

I would argue that this book didn’t need to be in its “original format” to make it more meaningful to the reader. I’m not sure that retaining spelling and grammar mistakes that typical high school writers make would prove anything besides helping a reader understand the grammatical needs of the students in Room 203. Not everyone is prepared to struggle through an unedited draft of anything unless it is the “unabridged journals” of a famous author, who has already proven himself/herself or who has met the mark of “worthy writing.” These students had to be held to a higher standard to get their dreams and experiences out to the world in writing. No one wants to read some high schooler’s first draft of a journal when most of the time we read highly revised professional work in the main stream. I don’t think that this book could have been so widely read if the journals were left untouched. In an untouched form, The Freedom Writers Diary could have devolved into a novelty piece which would be kept for observation about the students’ writing practices.

What are your thoughts?  Yay or Nay to the purity of The Freedom Writers Diary entries?

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