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When Did I Become Interested in Writing?

Sometimes people ask me what sparked my interest in writing, or whether I was interested in writing before my English class with teacher Erin Gruwell?

As a child, I used to play by myself for four or five hours because I was very shy, introverted and had terrible self-esteem.  Because of that, I always admired people who had a command of the English language. My high school English teacher, Erin Gruwell, certainly had a lot to do with getting me started down the road to writing. By encouraging me to journal regularly, she helped me see that I had a voice.

Then, when I attended U.C. Berkeley, one my classmates, Na’il Benjamin, was one of the most articulate, persuasive people I had ever met.  When he spoke, people listened, and I wanted to have that kind of effect on people as well. 

There was also a Rhetoric professor, Dr. Marianne Constable, who inspired me a great deal to improve my writing.  She chose words so carefully and thoughtfully, and used them so powerfully that she compelled me to take writing much more seriously.

Also, many of the books I read inspired me to write. They helped me see that good writing is a precurser to good speaking.

These days, I find it a lot harder to write in my journals as often as I would like because I am often writing papers for my PhD or writing books.  Still, I recognize how important writing has been to my own healing and growth, so I try to write my more personal thoughts and experiences down in my journals when I have a little time away from the busy-ness of my life. 

Speaking of Writing, I have a new book coming out very soon. I'm excited about it's cover and its contents.  I'll share more once the cover gets finalized.



The Sharaud Moore

If you've heard me tell my story, then you have heard me talk about Sharaud Moore, Mr. 450 referrals himself. You could always hear him before you saw him. Yeah, that guy. The one who didn't know how to whisper. If it had not been for Sharaud Moore, you would have probably never heard of Freedom Writers, because he was the catalyst for some major events that took place in our classroom. Well, he joined me at my speaking engagement today, and boy, was he a hit! The people were blown away by meeting him. He is now a teacher, a track coach, in law school, and is doing amazing things for kids in the city of Long Beach. We've come a LONG way, and it brings JOY to my heart to see my brother winning at life.

Freedom Writer Wedding

Long Beach, CA

I flew to Long Beach on March 24 to attend the wedding of one of my best friends, James Weston. He (in the middle) is an original Freedom Writer, meaning he was in Erin Gruwell’s very first class with me. He is teacher now, and is doing a wonderful job with the kids! He also makes some of the best cookies around. 

I was also able to spend some time with another one of my best friends, Mr. Sharaud Moore (far left). He is now a loving father, great teacher and incredible track coach.

I also spent some time with my cousin Juan (in between James and Sharaud), Terry (next to the bride), and Gary (right of me). These guys were with me during some of the hardest times of my life, and have been a support to me through the years. 

One of them told me, “Every time you stand on a stage, or grab a microphone, we are there with you.” I can’t tell you how much that means to me. When I speak, I carry with me the journey of my brothers and my sisters. I carry with me their pain, their hopes, their dreams; and, I try to give a very humane voice to the real struggles that many of us have faced. 

So often, well-meaning experts present data and impersonal theories during their talks about poverty and inequity, but so often do so in a way that, for me, fails to capture the essence of poverty and inequity. What many of my friends and I lived through was not just data or a theory; it was real life. I say all that to say that whenever I go home and see some of them, and enjoy their company, I am renewed and inspired to keep being a voice for so many who are voiceless.

Many of us original Freedom Writers are doing well today. Many of us have moved on with our lives, and are happily married, with children, and careers. They are in completely new chapters in their lives, and are flourishing. To see them doing well does my heart SO GOOD! 

One of these days, I am going to bring some of these guys with me to events just so you can meet them for yourself. They will bless you, make you laugh, and inspire your soul. It is an honor to know them.

March Page Turner: Kathy Byrd

This month Ink International is privileged to honor the work of Kathy Byrd, from Nettleton Junior High School (Jonesboro, AR).

Kathy Byrd has worked in education for the past 30 years and has served as the mentoring sponsor at her school for the past nine years. She earned a bachelor’s degree from Notre Dame. During her eighteen years at Nettleton Junior High, she has worked as a special education teacher and a literacy teacher. Nine years ago, Byrd launched the Big Sister/Little Sister Program, later known as Ladies of Distinction (a schoolwide mentoring program) that works with culturally diverse young girls from elementary to high school. Byrd has been invited to share the frameworks of this mentoring program at the National Anti-Girls Bullying conference in Las Vegas in June 2015. Along with the girls program, Byrd also successfully implemented a boys mentoring program, The Gentlemen of Knowledge, four years ago.

Photo: Nettleton Junior High 8th grade students working on Civil Rights Museum with teacher Kathy Byrd.

Ink International engaged Kathy Byrd in a short Q&A, below.

Can you talk about what prompted you to have Manny speak to your students and about the reaction at the school after his visit?
I have always had an interest in the Freedom Writers since the movie came out in 2007. I took my first group of eighth graders to see the movie and their response was, “She is just like you Mrs. Byrd." I began a successful unit every year that focused on developing curriculum similar to the Freedom Writers. We read relevant novels, watched the movie in class and participated in speaking and writing activities that dealt with my students' stories, which were very similar to the movie’s portrayal of life as a teenager. When my principal mentioned she had heard Manny Scott speak at a conference in the summer of 2014 and how amazing his story was, thus began our quest to raise the money in our school to book him for a speaking engagement. Due to snow in March 2014, we had to cancel and rebook for October of the next school year.

His message in October was very uplifting and touched the hearts of everyone, including those who doubted that one man could make a difference. He inspired students to never give up and to believe in themselves. He told his story to not a dry eye in the crowd and before it was over, students were embracing other students that they did not normally talk to. My students all felt that, no matter where they came from or how bad their life was at this moment, it could and would get better. He changes the hearts and minds of those he meets and leaves us with the hope that we all can do better.

Why are you so passionate about reaching and teaching kids?
I love my job and I tell everyone, “I get to go to work, not I have to go to work.” I have always had a love for kids and feel that I can make a difference. I have always treated all of my students like they were my own kids, and will often tell parents the same thing. Most of my students over the years have called me Mama Byrd, a sign of respect in their eyes. This year my students created a anti-bullying program and presented it to 730 students. They poured their hearts into this program and shared through video, poems and discussions on their positions of bullying and its consequences. My 7th and 8th graders just completed a Holocaust and Civl Rights Museum, modeled after the one in Washington, D.C. and Memphis, Tennessee, respectfully. During the year my students are rewarded with a trip to visit an actual Holocaust survivor along with a field trip to the Civil Rights Museum in Memphis. I feel that teaching is a mission and one that I am happy to fulfill. Teachers are all Mission workers and we are in a mission field. I feel blessed and honored to teach these wonderful students. I love my kids and expect the best from them, and they never disappoint. As I told the parents at parent-teacher conferences, “The kids make me look good, not the other way around.”

What do you think is most important for people to understand today about reaching students today, not only in Arkansas, but also across America? What do you think is most important for people to understand about the work Manny and Ink is doing?
The most important thing one needs to know to prepare students for tomorrow, is to enable them to become thinkers and doers. They must be able to have an opportunity to think on their own and to make decisions for themselves. My students know that I will never give up on them and I push them to do the best they can. I remember Manny Scott saying, “on your worst day, you are a student's only hope.” This has stayed with me, and I think of this often. Manny Scott brought hope to hundreds of our students the day he spoke. He made them believe in themselves and realize it is never too late to start over or begin again. He filled our students with hope, understanding and love. Many committed their life to start helping others and they now believe that they can tell their stories without being judged. They feel safe from harm and better about themselves. He made a difference in the lives of everyone that day. My students look forward to turning the page in their own lives.

“Kathy is running a phenomenal, robust mentorship program that deserves attention and applause.” - Manny Scott