Before Erin Gruwell could even begin sharing her life story Friday at Back Bay High School, students hugged her as they walked into the campus auditorium in Costa Mesa.
The UC Irvine alumna shared how she initially envisioned becoming a lawyer before she landed her first job as a teacher at Wilson High School in Long Beach in 1994. She later turned the experience into a book, which was adapted into the movie "Freedom Writers" in 2007.
She also founded the Freedom Writers Foundation in 1997 to inspire students to use writing to communicate instead of violence.
Gruwell described several Wilson High students, who were written off by the education system, and their struggles to push past feeling like they had a "bull's-eye on their chest."
Gruwell said she learned how to modify curriculum to help inspire and motivate her students through pop culture, assigning journals and books that dealt with issues they could relate to.
Eventually her students overcame their divisions, shattered their stereotypes and aspired to attend college.
Echoing a game she played with her Wilson High students, Gruwell asked the students at Back Bay, a continuation school, to stand if they or someone they knew had lived in more than five different places.
More than half the students stood.
Who knew someone who was poor?
Again, more than half stood.
She asked about homelessness, bullying and drug abuse.
"It sucks to have the weight on your shoulders, but I'm here to challenge you to walk away from the ledge — ask for help," Gruwell said. "When things aren't right, normal, then learn to ask for help. Never suffer in silence."
The Freedom Writers remain in contact to this day and lean on one another for help, she said.
"I'm here to celebrate and validate you," she said. "It's about what you do now ... only you know what needs to be told. Everyone sees in you what I see in my kids."
A handful of students stayed behind to take pictures with Gruwell and share their stories.
Senior Alan Cervantes, 17, said it was cool to hear how Gruwell connected with her students.
Senior Avery Ahuatzi, also 17, hugged Gruwell as tears streamed down her face. Avery said she watched the movie when she was at a low point in her life and uses writing as a way to express herself.
"I am really happy. I look up to her," Avery said. "Her stories made me realize everyone is broken but to keep fighting and it will get better."