ECHO - A visit by an innovative teacher and eight of her inner-city students may have changed the outlooks of some Echo residents. But it certainly reassured several teenagers in the community that they did the right thing to stand up for intellectual freedom and a teacher who stressed it.
"I still can't believe that something we did ended up with all this," Echo High School sophomore Ali McQuain said after Thursday evening's presentation at the Echo Community Center above City Hall.
McQuain, her sister and more than a dozen other Echo students held a protest recently in support of their English teacher, Sarah Widdop. Widdop was reprimanded for using the "The Freedom Writers Diary" in her class without getting permission of parents and the administration. The district later decided not to renew her contract.
"I think a lot of parents probably just thought we were trying to rebel," McQuain said.
"The Freedom Writers Diary" was written by the students of Erin Gruwell of Long Beach, Calif. McQuain's mother, Staci, contacted the Erin Gruwell Education Project two weeks ago to inform the nonprofit organization of Echo's situation, and Gruwell herself returned McQuain's plea for help.
"It's so incredible to know how much (Gruwell and the Freedom Writers) care about Echo, Oregon," Staci McQuain said. "It means so much to me to know that they care so much about our kids."
Freedom Writer Herschel Adler said he was proud of the way Echo students took a stand to fight for their rights and a voice in education.
"I was impressed and amazed about how they all came together and put up this fight," Adler said. "It was really courageous."
The courage of the Freedom Writers themselves was evident as they spoke of their childhoods and high school experiences before and after Gruwell entered their lives. The eight students who came to Echo, and 142 others, shared their stories in the book, but the frank and often profane language, along with issues such as sex abuse and molestation, ignited a controversy in Echo.
Many who attended Thursday's presentation had not read the book and some were unsure of its message. Echo School Board member Blake Bettencourt said he left inspired.
"I came to develop a well-informed opinion, and now that I came I feel really enlightened," he said.
Bettencourt didn't agree with not renewing Widdop's contract, but he supported the process the administration and School Board followed to reach the decision.
"But after being here tonight, I see the book in a completely different light," he said.
Echo School Board member Carol Reese was not present the night Widdop's contract was not renewed. Parents "have the choice to make a choice for your kids" regarding what they read at a young age, she said. "It's important to pre-teach. Just like you might preview a movie, preview the book. Get it and read it yourself."
As for Thursday's presentation, "I think it was a wonderful presentation and I wish more people were here because a lot of their questions (about the book) were answered," Reese said. "Anything that is taken out of context will be portrayed in a different light."
Some in the community judged "The Freedom Writers" based on exaggerated reports from people who had not read the book, Gruwell and the students said. They refuted radio personality Dr. Laura Schlessinger, who called the book "disgusting" and full of "filth."
"These kids are real people," said Echo art/special education teacher Jarred Jackman. "I felt immediately that they were completely cool folks."
The Echo students involved felt the same way.
"No one ever really respects our opinions in the community," Ali McQuain said. "So we were so excited to speak to people who understand us."
"It blows me away that they're here," Widdop said. "I just look up there and I think about how these kids are real people. They had nothing given to them. They're real. That's probably the coolest thing about it."
Widdop remains humble about her efforts to teach "The Freedom Writers" and the chain of events her actions created.
"I keep telling everybody, I was just trying to teach," she said. "As a teacher, you're supposed to inspire students. All I did was teach."