In this powerful speech, Lupita Nyong’o brings to light some great truths, and ends with a call to focus on “the deeper business of being beautiful inside.”
My husband and I watched an amazing movie the other night. It’s not a new movie (it’s rare we get out of the house to watch a new movie at the theater). We found this one on Netflix. The title struck me, “Freedom Writers.”
The description also:
“While her at-risk students are reading classics such as “The Diary of Anne Frank,” a young teacher asks them to keep journals about their troubled lives — hoping they can apply history’s lessons to break the cycle of violence and despair.”
The film began with scenes from the LA riots of the early 1990s, and I recalled when I was nine, watching the drama unfold on the news, seeing images of cops beating an innocent man and feeling sick to my stomach, wondering how anyone could be so cruel; what could possess them to use their power and title for evil.
The movie follows the first couple years that a young woman, Erin Gruwell, played by Hilary Swank, teaches English in a high school. The classrooms are reeling from what they called “forced integration.” Gruwell faces biased mindsets from the other teachers, who teach because they have to; disrespect and anger from the students, who know little but hatred for those outside their respective circles of race and culture.
After failing in other efforts, the teacher gives the students each notebook where they can keep a personal journal. She assures them it won’t be graded on content. “If you want me to read it,” she says, “just put it on the shelf. I will keep it locked except during class so you can put it there.”
The next time she looks, the shelf is full of notebooks. She begins to read and for the first time, she sees life from their perspective, through their eyes. It breaks her heart and it changes her life.
Those teenagers becomes her purpose in a way that the young woman cannot explain even to those closest to her. In her quest to make a lasting difference in their lives, she sacrifices much. To earn money for them to be able to have new books and go on field trip – when some had never left the suburb they lived in – she takes on a second job, and then a third.
Perhaps one of the reasons the movie struck a deep chord in me is that it combines writing with purpose, two things I’m starting to recognize are my “life themes.”
The movie is based on a true story. I don’t want to say too much, because I want you to watch the movie, to watch this woman’s life focus transform … and how it affected the teenagers that no one thought had a chance at anything.
That’s what purpose can do. It is that inexplicable feeling that reaches deep inside and whispers, “This is why you are here. You were made for this.” It might be one thing. It might be many. But it enters your heart and fills the hole you never knew existed. And when you follow it, you find great joy, even if, as the teacher’s father puts it in the movie, you are “Blessed with a burden.”
And it hurts sometimes. Because it’s opening up to someone or to something, your heart gets involved … and when it does, there is the very real threat of pain, disappointment, loss, sacrifice.
But it’s worth it. Living for a sense of purpose. Following that rich passion where it leads is always worth it. Because it changes hearts, changes lives, and begins to change the world.
I know the next book to add to my “to-read” list.
“My brother’s having the football team over,” her friend explained. “If you come, at least I won’t be the only girl.”
Tara laughed, and after talking with her friend a while longer, made plans to see her that evening. Although Tara did not follow football, she knew that her friend’s brother was on a semiprofessional team based in Tulsa, Oklahoma. She was intrigued and made sure to do her hair carefully before walking to her friend’s house down the street.
That evening as the house filled with nearly 30 football players, Tara felt herself growing shy. She had just turned 20 and had always been quiet around boys, especially when they were in large groups as they were that night. After a while she separated herself and sat by the fireplace to warm her feet. While she was there, a handsome football player came over and introduced himself.
“I’m Andrew Mastalli,” the young man grinned, his eyes sparkling in the light of the fire, “but everyone calls me Andy.”
Tara couldn’t help but laugh, and with the ice broken, the two talked through much of the evening. Andy was 20 years old too and determined to play football as long as possible. Tara listened intently as Andy spoke of his dreams, and when the evening ended, since Tara lived just three blocks away, Andy offered to walk her home.
“Know what I don’t like about the winter?” Andy asked as they made their way to Tara’s house.
“Roses?” Tara asked curiously.
“Roses are the best. Someday I want a home with my very own rosebush. There’s nothing like the smell of roses in the summertime.”
Tara smiled at her interesting companion. The next day when he called to take her for a drive, she wasn’t surprised.
“There’s an attraction there,” Tara told her friend a few weeks later, after she and Andy had dated several times. “But neither of us wants to get serious right now.”
Since neither of their families had much money and Andy’s mother was ill, the couple waited eight years before getting married. When they did, Andy brought Tara a rose to carry down the aisle.
“Now nothing can separate us, Tara,” he told her. “This is the happiest day of my life.”
Although a knee injury ended his football career, throughout the next 28 years Andy and Tara shared a relationship few people ever have. Andy even got his wish—not long after they were married, they planted a rosebush in the yard of their home in Tulsa.
Then, shortly after his 54th birthday, Andy was passed over for a promotion at the school where he was the head maintenance worker.
“The kids loved him, the faculty loved him, everyone loved him,” Tara told her close friend sometime later. “The administrator was the only one who had something against him.”
When it became clear that Andy wouldn’t be getting the promotion, he began suffering symptoms of stress. He had headaches and chest pains and complained about feeling tired. Tara was worried about him and arranged for him to see a doctor.
“You need to take it easy, Mr. Mastalli,” the doctor told him, “but I don’t think there’s anything seriously wrong with you.”
But on a sunny afternoon just one week after the appointment with the doctor, Andy suffered a massive heart attack. Tara rushed to the hospital to be by Andy’s side, but there was nothing the doctors could do. Andy died.
The love of Tara’s life was gone forever. Without Andy, she plummeted into a deep depression that nothing could ease.
For weeks after his death, students sent letters to Tara telling her what a wonderful man Andy had been and stating how badly they missed him. But nothing helped Tara’s grief.
Over the next several months, Tara lost weight and rarely left the home she and Andy had shared. It was not until late that year that she began seeing friends and spending more time socializing. She even went on a few casual outings with a male friend of hers, but her heartbreak over losing Andy was still so great that it hurt too much to go out with the man. Christmas was approaching—Andy’s favorite time of the year—and she could not stop the terrible ache inside at missing him.
“I don’t know when I can see you again,” she told her male friend one night. I still have so much of my past to deal with. You see, Andy and I were married for nearly 30 years. I just don’t know how to stop loving him after all that time.”
The week leading up to Christmas was perhaps the darkest of all for Tara, who felt as if she’d made an attempt to live again and failed. She still missed Andy so badly that she thought she might never leave home again.
Christmas morning dawned, and Tara awoke to the heavy smell of … roses. Puzzled, Tara climbed out of bed and wandered through the house. There was a Christmas snow on the ground, and outside everything around her was frozen. Still, as she made her way from one room to the next, she was overwhelmed by the smell of Andy’s favorite flower.
Quickly she went to the telephone and dialed her friend and neighbor, Lisa.
“Please, Lisa. Come over right away,” she asked her friend. “I know it’s Christmas morning, but I have to see you. Just for a minute.” She did not mention the roses because she wanted to see if the smell was only in her imagination. Since it was so strong, she knew that if she wasn’t imagining it, Lisa would recognize it as soon as she walked into the house.
“Hey, where are the roses?” Lisa asked as she opened the door bundled in a coat and boots. “It’s Christmas. No one’s supposed to have roses.”
Tara stared at her friend strangely, and tears filled her eyes. Lisa realized that something was wrong. “What is it, Tara?”
“There aren’t any roses in the house. None at all. And there can’t be any on the bush outside because it’s frozen solid.”
Lisa looked around, and suddenly an expression of understanding filled her face.
“It’s from God, Tara,” she said. “He must want you to know that Andy’s fine and that everything’s going to be okay. You can go on with your life.”
“Do you really think so?” Tara asked, sitting down and steadying herself in the chair.
“Yes. How else can you explain this smell? It’s so strong it can’t be anything else.”
Tara nodded slowly. “You’re right.” Then she began to cry softly. How good God was, letting Tara know that He still cared—that somewhere Andy still waited for her. It was the greatest Christmas present Tara could ever have received, and with it came a sense of peace and closure.
“I guess it’s time for me to let go.”
At that instant, the smell of fresh roses disappeared from the room. Tara looked at Lisa to see if she had noticed.
“It’s gone,” Lisa said simply.
“Yes. As soon as I said it was time to let go.”
Tara has never again smelled roses in the dead of winter as she did that cold Christmas day. Soon after that, she began socializing with her friends again, and in time, her depression disappeared completely. Although she has male friends, she has never remarried.
“There will never be anyone like Andy again,” she told Lisa some time later.
As if to remind herself of that fact, she has kept a rose bush every year without fail. Each summer when the flowers bloom, she is taken back to that Christmas day when she was not sure whether she could live without the man she had loved for so long, and Tara remembers the smell of roses and how by some miracle God Himself gave her the strength to go on.
Story found in Treasury of Christmas Miracles by Karen Kingsbury