Moral math and Freedom Writers

by Mr. Sheehy

Kiersten and I watched Freedom Writers last night, an inspirational teacher-movie half the school population of the US is likely to see in coming years. I liked it and even got teary eyed when a boy read a letter about how the classroom with this teacher had become his safe-haven – the creation of which is a goal many educators, including me, aspire to reach. But though the aspirations and intentions of Mrs. Gruwell (Hillary Swank) largely echoed with me, they stopped short and hard where she sacrificed her marriage for the sake of the cause. Sure, the film claims that she had not chosen her career over her husband but instead realized she never really loved her husband. But this rings hollow with me, despite how much I enjoy watching the king of the benevolent break-up, Patrick Dempsy, do his thing (I have been sold on him since Can’t Buy Me Love).

Does it have to be like this? To make a difference, does one have to sacrifice one’s family? Or is it a delusion that one person makes so much difference that it is worth it? This idea that one person makes all the difference is a delusion, isn’t it? It seems like a natural offshoot of our American independent spirit. Erin Gruwell chastises her students because their current gang life doesn’t earn them any lasting significance – they’ll all just “rot in the ground” and be forgotten. And while the book Freedom Writers makes a difference, I can confidently predict that my daughter will never hear of it, that its fame will die away, that its writers will be forgotten, and that the vice that caused the problems in those people’s lives will rage on. A.E. Housman was closer to right when he wrote “Is My Team Ploughing?“:

‘Is my friend hearty,
Now I am thin and pine,
And has he found to sleep in
A better bed than mine?’

Yes, lad, I lie easy,
I lie as lads would choose;
I cheer a dead man’s sweetheart,
Never ask me whose.

It’s not me that makes a difference, it’s us. And my working late and sacrificing my family only sacrifices the area where I can make a difference more lasting than any I can make at school. Years after my death, who will remember my name but my family? And is my memory really all that is important? What is a memory? It is not eternal life.

And on I contemplate. I do not believe Freedom Writers attempts to tackle all these questions to their depth – perhaps the movie as a genre is not capable of doing so much – and I am not interested in casting stones, but the film raises the questions nonetheless. Is it worth it for the teacher or any other person to sacrifice her own family for the sake of the cause? I realize there are degrees and situations and separate causes – I admire my enlisted students even more than Ivy Leaguers. And I believe strongly that there are things worth dying for, where, “to die is gain.”

But today, I say no to this individualistic heroism. The cause, if it is worth sacrifice, is bigger than an individual, and I am tempted to claim that the sum total of dozens of smaller sacrifices is more effective than the dramatic sacrifice of one. At least on a general basis.

But alas, I play games with math, now, and by falling into the world of moral math, I have already lost.