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The power of words

Maria Reyes is one of the original Freedom Writers. She spoke at Discovery Middle School on March 13.

It's true that the pen can be mightier than the sword - or the gun.

It's a lesson that Maria Reyes stressed to an auditorium full of enthralled students and teachers at Discovery Middle School (DMS) in Alexandria on Friday.

"I came to understand the power of words," boomed the diminutive former gang member with the huge voice and powerful message.

Reyes, born in Los Angeles, California, knows firsthand that the right words can turn your life around.

Both her father and grandfather were gang members. At age 11, she also joined a gang.

She was in and out of juvenile detention centers for most of her teenage years.

As a freshman, she was enrolled in Woodrow Wilson High School in Long Beach, California. There she was placed in Erin Gruwell's remedial English class. It was a turning point.

On the stage at DMS, Reyes told the heartbreaking story of how she got to this point. She talked about growing up in the inner city - watching family members and friends get shot, having to constantly worry about gang crossfire, a father who was in prison, and a mother who was never there because she had to work three jobs to support her family. She spoke of her life in and out of juvenile detention centers and of the hatred and anger she felt for everyone and everything - including herself.

"The priority in my home was making sure I wasn't going to get blasted by a rival gang," she explained of why school was not a priority.

Through her violent childhood, Reyes developed a deep disdain for authority, school, education, and especially teachers. She was convinced that she had three choices in life: that she would end up "knocked up, in prison, or dead."

Then Gruwell convinced her to read The Diary of Anne Frank. Her reading level that of a 5th grader, Reyes struggled through the book. And at the end she had an epiphany.

"Anne and I became girlfriends," Reyes said. "It made me see myself in other people. She was talking about forgiveness. I learned to forgive."

Realizing her students lived with violence, Gruwell also had them read Night by Elie Weisel and Ziata's Diary: A Child's Life in Sarajevo. Reyes and her classmates felt a connection with the books and, through the encouragement of their teacher, began to keep their own diaries.

These entries were later compiled and published under the title The Freedom Writers Diary. The book became a number one New York Times best seller and was later adapted into a film titled Freedom Writers.

Against all odds, Reyes graduated from high school. In 2005 she earned a bachelor's degree from California State University-Long Beach. Since then, she has traveled across the country speaking to teachers, administrators, at-risk youth and community leaders about the power of education and the need to give students a second chance. DMS was one of those schools.

The event was made possible by a student in Abby Johnson's 9th grade English class at DMS. After reading The Freedom Writers Diary as an assignment, the student suggested that Reyes come to Alexandria to speak. The student, along with Johnson and teacher Joyce Engel, researched the author and what it would take to accomplish that feat.

Johnson and Engel wrote and received a grant through United Way Youth as Resources and also asked several DMS departments to contribute to help with the fees.

All their work culminated in the inspiring speech delivered by Reyes last week.

"The kids were so excited," Johnson said. "It was quite an honor to have her here."

Reyes' hour-long, emotional presentation taught her rapt audience several of life's lessons, including the value of education, fighting adversity to succeed and believing in yourself.

"She [Gruwell] made me believe education could show me the door," Reyes concluded. "I learned to be my own light in my own dark world."