By Rebecca LaFlure
Killeen Daily Herald
HARKER HEIGHTS – Eastern Hills Middle School students read about the characters in the "Freedom Writer Diaries" all school year in Diana Stock's English Language Learners class. On Thursday, they had the opportunity to meet two of them in person.
Maria Reyes and Mauricio Becerra visited Killeen students and urged them to excel in school despite the obstacles they might face.
Reyes and Becerra were students of Erin Gruwell, an educator in Long Beach, Calif., who in 1994 fostered a strong bond with a classroom of "unteachable" students in the wake of the Rodney King riots. She encouraged her students to keep a journal.
The effort resulted in a best-selling book called the "Freedom Writer Diaries," which includes entries from Reyes and Becerra, and a 2007 movie in which Reyes is portrayed as the main character Eva.
"We're taking things we learned in class and bringing them to life," said Stock, who uses many of the techniques Gruwell used in her classroom. "It shows that they're real people. They can look at where they came from, the obstacles they had to overcome and celebrate the successes they had."
Reyes was born in East Los Angeles. By age 11, she had become a third-generation gang member. After losing more than 20 friends to gang violence, she enrolled in Gruwell's remedial English class her freshman year at Woodrow Wilson High School.
Becerra, also in the English class, grew up with an alcoholic father. Raised amid violent gang culture, he was once assaulted by gang members and hospitalized.
Gruwell inspired them to change their lives and go to college. They went on to share their story in the best-selling book, and continue to talk to students around the country about overcoming adversity and the importance of education.
"I feel it was a great opportunity to be able to share our story, especially some of those students who feel they can't graduate because of the language barrier," Reyes said.
"We wanted to highlight that we didn't always make straight A's or come from a family who supported us, but we took accountability for our education."
The Freedom Writers signed a book for each student in Stock's class and answered questions.
Eighth-grader Maria Murguia said she could relate to many of the struggles the Freedom Writers faced and said their stories inspired her to keep a diary of her own.
"It was great to meet them," she said. "Their words … changed my life big time."
Contact Rebecca LaFlure at firstname.lastname@example.org or (254) 501-7548. Follow her on Twitter at KDHeducation.