Whatever you want

“You can be whatever you want to be.”

So says one of the actors in an interview for the ‘Story behind the story’ DVD extra on the movie Freedom Writers.

I bought and watched the movie after reading a rave review of it on my brother’s blog a few weeks ago, and started planning my own review while the DVD was still in the post.  I’ve seen enough films of this genre before to know what to expect – idealistic teacher (played by Hilary Swank, who seems to like ‘issues’ movies) moves to rough school, can’t get the kids to pay attention to her, let alone do their homework, perseveres, tries something creative, connects with them and makes them start to believe in themselves, encounters opposition from the authorities, fights it and/or defies it and manages to make the kids happy and successful and believing in themselves.

If that’s what you want, you’ll get it here. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry. You’ll start off thinking there’s no hope and end up wondering why, if it’s that easy, every failing school doesn’t try the same. The film is well made, well written and well acted, and thus well worth a look.  It is also based on a true story, which always gives more of an impact. In addition, Erin Gruwell, the teacher who inspired the film, has now gone on to form a foundation aiming to replicate her success across the USA.

But knowing in advance that I was going to write all, or most, of the above, I watched the film with an eye out for something different to say, and I found it.

Sadly, despite her success in the classroom, Erin’s marriage failed, and this is sketchily covered in the film.  I knew from my brother’s review that it was coming, and had expected that it was the same old reason – wife gets so caught up with her job that she neglects her husband.  While there is an element of that in the plot, Scott (her husband, played by Patrick Dempsey) says that isn’t the main reason.  Scott, we have learned, always wanted to be an architect, but is currently doing some other, unnamed job and the suggestion is that this is because the couple needs more than Erin’s school teacher wages if he is to do the necessary studying then apprenticeships.

Yet explaining his decision to leave her, Scott tells Erin that he likes what he does at the moment. He admires her for doing something good in the world, but standing next to her, he feels as if his own contribution is belittled. He doesn’t want to fight for people’s rights, to change their lives, to make the world a better place; what he wants is to live, work, make money, have fun, and not feel guilty about it.

“You can be whatever you want to be” is a powerful statement, and one which I noticed during the 5 years I lived in the States, that is very much a national motto.  The positive side of this is that it does create a culture with a can-do attitude; the national feeling there is – and was already, before Obama coined the phrase – “Yes we can”! (In contrast to the British sentiment of “Well, we’ll have a go. It’s not the winning, but the taking part that counts…”)

The negative side, though, is that actions are not neutral. You are able to do anything you want, but should you?  Freedom Writers deals a lot with the issues of gangs. Many gang members and leaders are fighting, killing and terrorising because they can – it’s what they want to do.  Erin’s husband wanted to live an unexceptional life, but being around someone who wanted to live an exceptional one showed up the difference in the value of their ambitions.

Now this is not to say that being a computer programmer (or whatever his job was) is of less value than being a teacher.  A friend of mine, Viv Thomas, writes and teaches about living a Spectacular Ordinary life. You can be a street-sweeper, a top city banker or a kid from the ‘projects’, but the way in which you live your life says more about who you are than the activities you undertake. If your life is defined by a transformative relationship with Christ, and you face the daily grind with wisdom, humour, compassion, grace and love, you will make an impact greater than any person living for his or her own prestige, wealth or power.

You can be whatever you want to be, and in fact you will be whatever you want to be, so be careful that what you’re wanting is what God wants you to be.

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