I’ve had several people ask me what is “freedom writing” and what are “Freedom Writers.” It started as a bunch of kids writing their stories in the hopes that someone might read and find hope. Funny thing is that sometimes I have to go back to my own story when I’m looking for hope and motivation to persevere through hard times and achieve my goals. To wit, I share with you this excerpt from The Freedom Writer’s Diary: 10th Anniversary Edition.

Dear Diary,

I was five months pregnant when I graduated from high school. I wasn’t worried, though, because I had a plan. I was going to college and I was going to make something of myself. For a while the plan worked and I worked the plan. Spring semester came around and I jumped in full speed ahead, ready to conquer the world. But as time went on, and the plan didn’t seem to be taking me any closer to my goal of graduating from college, my vision started to grow dimmer and dimmer.

It was 30 minutes before my intro to mass media class; a course from which I was on the verge of being dropped because I was either late or absent on a regular basis. I spent the previous 30 minutes trying to scrounge up a few bucks to put gas in my car. I dumped my change jar and counted almost four dollars in pennies. Then I dug in the couch, under beds, in junk drawers, in my purse, and checked every pants or coat pocket until I had exactly five dollars. I put them in a ziplock bag and headed to the gas station, hoping I could get to class on time.

“I can’t take that,” said the little Asian woman, when I went to hand her the bag. She didn’t even move to it. “How do I know it’s five dollars?”

“I counted it,” I said, humiliated by being so abruptly rebuffed. “I’ll count it here if you want.”

“You have to roll,” she said with a thick accent. “I can’t take them like that.”

“Where am I supposed to get penny wrappers?” I quipped, still holding the bag before her.

She glared at me, reached under the counter and handed me 10 penny wrappers. “You roll them and you can get gas.”

I didn’t have time to argue and roll the pennies, so I walked back to my car and began shoving the pennies into the wrappers. By the time I finished, I was down to 15 minutes to get to class, and the baby was still in the back seat. As I walked back to the cashier to pay for the gas, I realized I was not going to make it to the class. I got the gas, went home and my vision faded to black. I dropped the rest of my classes for the semester. How was I going to get through college and I could barely afford to buy diapers, let alone pay a babysitter and buy books.

When I had my second child a few years later, and my boyfriend asked me what I was going to do, I was afraid to answer. I wanted to go back to college but I was still haunted by that day at the gas station that I did not want to go back only to fail again. But what was I to do? It was in my longest period of unemployment since joining the workforce. After looking for work for almost six months, I was either overqualified for jobs I didn’t really want or didn’t have a degree to prove I could do jobs I did want.

As a last ditch effort to develop a skill and get started with some sort of career, I made up my mind that my future, my life and the lives of my children depended on me getting an education. I saw a commercial for an interior design program at a local design school and went down for a visit; it looked like fun creative work so I signed up. I was in my second term at design school when I ran into a Freedom Writer I hadn’t seen in a while. She told me our teacher Ms. Gruwell was trying to gather some of us together for a pilot run of a Freedom Writer Scholarship. I have to admit that I was conflicted; I knew this was the opportunity I had been in such desperate need of before but it also meant revising my plan…again. There was no way I could pass though, so I took the plunge and began to see a light in the fog. My dream was back within my reach.

There was always so much to do: work, school, parent teacher conferences, not to mention the speaking engagements and workshops that were included in my scholarship. It didn’t take long for my fiancé to begin showing signs of resentment, finding ways to reminding me that I was always gone and the kids missed me. Like I didn’t already feel bad about not being around to help my kids with their homework or tuck them in at bedtime. But hell, I busted my ass every day, dragging two kids along for rides on multiple buses to get them to school or to the sitter. Sometimes when I was having a debate with a mindless 19-year-old blond for whom college was just something to check off a list, I thought about my kids and remembered that for me, this was do-or-die time.

My final year was still a blast. I picked up a minor in journalism, wrote for the school paper and got a job on campus. Finally I had was able to enjoy the college experience I had always wanted but had lost hope of that day at the gas station. When I heard my name called and walked across the stage, I looked out and knew that despite all of the challenges, I had beaten the odds. I was no longer just the statistic – the single teenage mother who with no options – I was a college graduate with an entire world of possibilities ahead of me. It was time for my life to begin.

Visit the Freedom Writers Foundation for more info on the Freedom Writers and to purchase a copy of The Freedom Writer’s Diary