A High School Teacher Was Told Her Underprivileged Students Were Too Dumb to Read

Tim Denning

It pays to believe in underdogs.


Image Credit: Shutterstock/MarkTerrill

Towards the end of high school one of the leaders in charge told me to quit. They said I was too dumb to pass high school.

I believed them and quit. I signed up to do a sound engineering course and was rejected. They wanted experience, and I didn’t meet the minimum age requirement of 18 years old. I was devastated.

One night after class finished I went to the office where the Pink Floyd teachers of sound engineering hung out. I asked to speak with the kind female teacher in her 40s. I asked her if there was another way to get in. She saw something in me and decided to challenge the prior decision not to let me in. She convinced them to let me do all the classes except the one class taught by the teacher who was responsible for rejecting me.

I was given one year to prove myself. If I did, they would allow me to make-up the one class I missed and do the rest of the second year of study. What the school didn’t know was that I was 16 years old, not 18. Nobody ID-checked me so I said nothing.

I had to work harder than the other students because I’d never touched a mixing board or been in a recording studio. I literally had to ask where the ON button was. There were hundreds of knobs and sliders on the mixing board. Each knob became my obsession.

I had to become a grown-up overnight to convince them of my age. About one and a half years in a few students figured out I was a kid. By the end of the second year of study my secret got out. The teacher admired my tenacity and let me stay. It was at that point I decided to go back and finish high school, while still studying sound engineering.

I found a high school that had sound engineering as part of their curriculum. I went to the interview to be considered for placement and the teacher said “you’re just too old.” Once again I had to fight and fight for the right to an education.

I told them my two years of sound engineering was going to make them look good. I was clearly well ahead when it came to recording studio chops because I got a head start. I agreed to mentor the other kids and share what I learned. In some areas of audio I was more advanced than the teacher.

I ended up finishing high school and outperforming for the remaining two years of sound engineering study. Nobody believed a 16-year-old kid with no sound engineering experience could beat 20 and 30-something-year-olds who grew up in recording studios.

I defied the odds because up until that point the education system told me I was too dumb to graduate.

Erin Gruwell was a high school teacher. Her employer said her students would never read a book because they were too stupid. They were a class of underdogs because some were underprivileged, some struggled to learn, and some had been in and out of the courts.

One student said, “I hate Erin Gruwell and if I wasn’t on probation I’d probably shank her.” The first thought that came to Erin was How am I supposed to help these kids change?

The defining moment was when Erin decided to put red tape across the middle of the classroom. She asked different students to come up to the tape and answer questions. One question accidentally slipped out:

“Stand on the line if you have ever been homeless.”

One student, Sue Ellen, came out and stood on the line. There was nobody else in sight. Courage turned to embarrassment. It was too late to undo her walk of shame. Another girl, Tiffany, suddenly stepped away from the classroom wall and stood next to Sue Ellen.

Tiffany realized Sue Ellen’s story of homelessness was her own. When she wasn’t at school she was standing on the streets of Long Beach California holding a sign that said: “will work for food.” Nobody knew.

It was a defiant decision for everybody to finally see her for the student she was. There wasn’t going to be anymore hiding from the shame of homelessness. Two became three. Another boy stepped out and stood on the red tap in the middle of the classroom. He experienced the feeling of courage too. All three students owned their story. It was the first time in a long time they had owned anything.

Their teacher Erin remembers thinking “this is going to change the game.” This moment was the start of unconventional teaching methods.

Maria walked into the classroom, fresh out of a juvenile detention center. She wore an ankle bracelet so the authorities could track her. She had her own probation officer. Her father was in prison. She looked dangerous and like you wouldn’t want to mess with her if you were her teacher.

Erin was told by her English department that people like Maria would never read a book cover to cover because they were too dumb. To top it off, one of the students drew a picture of another student, depicting them with huge lips to make fun of them.

Erin said, “Drawings like that led to the Holocaust.”

This made Erin do something crazy one day. She drove to the book store and ordered 150 copies of the book “The Diary of Anne Frank.” Each student was given a copy of the book. Maria didn’t want to read it.

She thought the book was stupid because Anne was not from the same place as her and didn’t have the same cultural background. Anne Frank hadn’t seen what Maria had seen, or so she thought. Maria hid her secret gangster mentality and started reading the book.

“Sometimes I feel like a bird in a cage and I wish I could fly away,” Anne Frank wrote. Maria knew what a cage felt like. She too lived in one.

Maria kept reading the book and fell in love with it. She tied her ability to survive her situation with Annes. But nobody told her the story was going to end in tragedy. That good people who have done nothing wrong would never be punished. Anne Frank wasn’t getting out of her Holocaust induced situation alive.

Maria became angry with her teacher for sharing a book with the class where it ends in tragedy. The students had enough tragedy in their life already. They didn’t need more tragedy and stories telling them they couldn’t be anything in life or to give up because they’re too dumb and they’d never go to college.

Erin felt terrible about the pain she caused Maria. “I never wanted to take away my student’s hope.”

Erin says to Maria “She did make it because she wrote about it. She’s going to go on living even after her death.”

The message Erin wanted to leave her students was that they could rewrite their own story or rewrite their own ending. Maybe the students could rewire society’s programming of their minds and do something great with their lives, despite the fact they came from underprivileged neighborhoods.

Maybe they could be underdogs.

Erin Gruwell came up with a plan to give 149 other students like Maria a second chance at life. They did something crazy.

Erin and her students sent their stories as letters to the 87-year-old lady, Miep Gies, who hid Anne Frank and seven others all those years ago in her attic, to save them from the terrors of the holocaust.

When Miep sat down to read the student’s stories she saw a glimmer of Anne Frank in them. She saw promise, potential, hope — the three ingredients of people who can defy the education system.

Miep was so inspired she flew all the way to California to meet the students. It was no tea party. Miep challenged the students to ensure Anne Frank’s death wasn’t in vain and meant something.

Maria watched on and took a giant leap of faith: she wanted to change.

150 high school kids from Long Beach California weren’t supposed to make it, according to society. With the help of Anne Frank’s story they defied the odds and all graduated high school. Many of them went off to college much to their high school’s surprise.

The 150 writers became known as “The Freedom Writers.” Erin became their accidental life teacher.

These students who defied the odds went on to write a book called “The Freedom Writers Diary” that became the number one book in America when it was released in 1999. Hollywood ended up making the book into a movie called “Freedom Writers.”


I was told I was too dumb for high school and college too. I can relate directly to the 150 freedom writers. We’re underdogs. We weren’t supposed to make anything of ourselves. Except we did. Maybe you can relate.

It doesn’t matter where you come from or how privileged you are. It matters where you’re going.

When society tells you you’re destined to be a loser, tell society to go get stuffed by using the skills and experiences you have to make something of yourself.

If the freedom writers can be inspired by Anne Frank and make history using the lessons from her story, what are you capable of? My guess is a lot more than you think you are.

Let society tell you you’re dumb, prove them wrong with your success, then go on to help others do the same.

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Aussie Blogger with 100M+ views — Writer for CNBC & Business Insider. Inspiring the world through Personal Development and Entrepreneurship www.timdenning.com


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