Manuel Scott, one of the original "Freedom Writers," spoke Tuesday at Fort Dodge Senior High.
The Freedom Writers were a group of Long Beach, Calif., students who kept journals about their dreams and troubles. At 14, Scott had dropped out of school and fallen in with gangs and drugs, his grammar so poor he qualified as an English as a second language student. Now, he is a motivational speaker and Ph.D. student.
Before a full auditorium of Fort Dodge students, Scott began by singing Mahalia Jackson's "If I Can Help Somebody."
"I opened with that song because it describes why I showed up today," Scott said. "I'm not rich and famous, I'm not a performer. I'm just a messenger. I'm just a guy with a message that I believe can change your life."
Scott first asked the students to stand if they liked Lil Wayne or Eminem, or liked Hannah Montana or Spongebob Squarepants, each time met with enthusiastic response as dozens stood and cheered. He next asked the students to stand if they wanted to be a teacher, or join the military, or help other people.
He then requested silence as he asked if there were any students who would be the first in their family to graduate, if their parents were alcoholics or used drugs, or if they had seen a man hit or beat their mom. All the questions were personal to Scott, who had tears in his eyes. In the silence, dozens of students stood to the questions.
"You are not alone," he said.
Scott asked students then if they had ever been "in a dark place, a depressed place" and "you don't know why." More students stood.
"It takes a lot of courage for you to do what you just did, and I thank you very much," he said. "I'm so proud of you for your openness and for trusting me with your pain."
Scott told stories of students he had encountered as a speaker, of all classes and all ages, who felt unloved and lived with so little hope they were drawn toward suicide.
"I was leaving a school in Chicago, walking by a bathroom and I heard sobs," he said. "I walked into the bathroom and saw a white guy in the corner, bent over in pain. I leaned over him and said, 'What's wrong, big guy? What's wrong?' He said, 'Mr. Scott, I was going home today to kill myself. I've got no family, I've got nobody. I heard you speaking and stopped. I'm in here crying because I didn't know anybody in the world understood my pain or really cared about people like me.'"
Scott told the FDSH students they "could be sitting next to someone who just wants to be loved" and to tell their friends, the ones who cared about and supported them, thank you. Given three minutes to find their friends, the students, some with tears in their eyes, dispersed in the auditorium and hugged one another, some in groups, exchanged fist bumps or warm smiles. Many students hugged their teachers in appreciation.
"I hope you never forget what just happened," Scott said. "I hope you never forget that there are people in this room just like you who are going through the same stuff you're going through. I hope you never forget there are people in this room who love you."
Scott asked the students not to keep their pain silent, if they were suffering depression or had been raped or molested or were considering suicide.
"If you're going through stuff like that I beg you please tell someone. You're not alone," he said. "You can make it through these things."
Scott concluded by elaborating on his experiences, and explained he was still enduring the pain of his childhood hardships.
"I've been there, I'm making it through it," he said. "I'm not completely healed, but I'm not going to wait until my life is perfect to stop and help other people. I'm a wounded healer, I'm very broken. You can do something great with your life."