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Westmoreland students hear about tolerance, diversity

By Gary Liberatore

(WKTV) - Westmoreland Schools Superintendent Rocco Migliori says he met a woman named Erin Gruwell two years ago at a New York State School Board Conference. 

Because of that meeting, Migliori convinced Gruwell to come to Westmoreland to speak to Westmoreland students, not once -- but twice.  And on Thursday, one of Gruwell's students actually made a trip here herself.

Gruwell is the teacher from Woodrow Wilson High School in Long Beach, Calif., who inspired her own students so much, a movie was made about them.  That movie is called "The Freedom Writers."

Gruwell intercepted a racist drawing by one of her students and actually used it to teach her classes about the Holocaust, including the story of the "Diary of Anne Frank."

She gradually began to earn her students' trust and used her own money to buy all of them a composition book to record their diaries, in which they talk about their experiences, which included being abused, seeing their friends die and being evicted and living on the street.

The act ultimately turned the troubled school around and led to the movie.

About 150 of Gruwell's students became Freedom Writers, and one, Tiffony Jacobs made a visit to Westmoreland on Thursday herself.

Jacobs talked to the students about her troubled early life living in a home filled with domestic violence and the fact that she, along with her family, lived on the streets of Long Beach for some time while her father was out of work.

Jacobs says Gruwell helped her change her life around by getting her to write.

"For me, it helped me define who I was. It helped me see the progression of my thoughts so I know where I wanted to go, so yes, writing has helped me tremendously become the person that I am."

Jacobs now keeps track of where each of the 150 Freedom Writers are and what they're up to.

"We saw that we had a lot of things in common as far as the things that were going on at home and in our neighborhoods, so we wanted to create awareness about those issues, so we wrote the 'Freedom Writers Diary.' "

That "Freedom Writers Diary" was presented to the U.S. Secretary of Education in the mid-1990's and ultimately led to the making of the movie.

Jacobs says Gruwell is truly an inspiration and shows how one person can make a difference in so many lives.  All 150 of her classmates in the Woodrow Wilson Class of '97 were aided by Gruwell's teaching.

"The chalkboard became a coloring book. We had music on, we became friends, we went on trips and became a family and it became bigger than us, because we realized these situations were happening still in our community and all across the world. And so that's why we have this mission, this revolution to really change and help public schools and create responsible communities from the inside out."

Part of Jacobs' message was for students to stand up and do something if they see something wrong, for example, bullying.

Superintendent Migliori says Jacobs' message is truly inspirational and can show that one student can also make a difference in people's lives.

"We have a responsibility to do more than just teach kids how to read and write, we have a responsibility to get to the bottom of the whole social emotional piece."

Thursday's second speaker at Westmoreland was Tresor Rusesabagina, son of Paul Rusesabagina, who actually inspired another movie called "Hotel Rwanda."

Paul Rusesabagina was the hotel manager at a prominent hotel in Rwanda during the 1994 genocide, which saw 1 million people killed in a 100-day span.

Rusesabagina was a member of the Hulu people, which wanted to wipe the Tutsi people off the map.  During the genocide, Rusesabagina hid 1,256 Tutsi people in his hotel and kept them from being murdered.

His son, Tresor, told the Westmoreland students on Thursday he is very proud of his father and hopes they also take the same message from him as they did from Tiffony Jacobs --  that one person can truly make a difference.  He says his father was an ordinary person who did extraordinary things and they can do the same.  He hopes they take the following message with them: "Acceptance, and taking action and doing something, not just standing by and watching things happen, actually taking action and trying to make a difference."

Tresor Rusesabagina says the Hulu people in Rwanda called the Tutsi people cockroaches.

"Cockroach has been a word that's been used, not only in the genocide in Rwanda, but this was used in the Holocaust.  I use the word 'cockroach,' but the point of it it is, words can be incredibly powerful, it could be the 'N' word, or a derogatory word for whatever sexuality you're comfortable with."

He urged students to stand up and take a stand against bullying whenever they see it, and says he is always happy to see kids listen to his family's story so intently,.

"Just to watch them, whether it's high school kids, fifth graders, seventh graders, it's cool to see them engaged."

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