Long after he quit speaking and the assembly was over, Manny Scott continued to be swarmed by Mountain Home High School students.
Some students still had puffy, tear-streaked eyes as they reached for their hug.
Many of the 1,600 in attendance had dabbed their eyes or hugged their classmates as Scott delivered his message of hope, overcoming odds and embracing opportunity.
Scott is a former high school dropout turned Ph.D. student whose story was partially chronicled in the book “The Freedom Writers Diary: How a Teacher and 150 Teens Used Writing to Change Themselves and the World Around Them” and the 2007 movie “Freedom Writers”
“I shared my life with you … to impress upon you … no matter where you are from … no matter how dark the night gets, you can overcome every one of those obstacles to do something great with your life,” Scott told students.
Growing up, Scott’s father was incarcerated, and Scott soon began to think of himself as hopeless. Scott said he skipped school 60 to 90 days a year, became involved with crime and drugs and regularly brought home D’s and F’s.
He dropped out, and lived in 26 different places – sometimes Dumpster diving in search of Taco Bell and McDonalds bags for his next meal.
Then, while sitting dejectedly on a park bench, Scott met a stranger who told him he didn’t have to throw his life away.
Scott returned to school, landed in English teacher Erin Gruwell’s Long Beach, Calif., classroom and began to turn things around.
Gruwell, who wrote “The Freedom Writers Diary,” altered her class to focus on tolerance and love. She encouraged her students to chronicle their lives in journals, as depicted in “Freedom Writers.”
Famously, Scott and every one of the 150 low-achieving or at-risk students in Gruwell’s classes graduated high school.
On Thursday, Scott focused on audience participation. He began by asking students to stand up if different statements described them.
If they thought Eminem was the best rapper alive.
If they wanted to be a doctor or a nurse when they grew up.
Or if they wanted to be a teacher or counselor.
Then the questions turned to the issues that affected Scott in his youth.
Stand if one or both of your parents is an alcoholic.
Stand if a man has ever abused your mother.
Stand if you’ve ever lost someone to violence.
More than one person?
Five or more?
Without laughter or finger-pointing, students stood after each scenario.
Many wiped back tears, and, at times, several dozen students were standing.
“It was the most powerful assembly I’ve ever seen,” principal Jeff Johnson said.
At that point, Scott said it was time for a break. He urged students to find another student who had their back during a tough time, thank them and give them a hug.
He also asked students to seek out someone they had picked on or abused, to also hug that person and apologize.
“Today can be the beginning of something even more special at your school,” Scott said. “People of every different socioeconomic background were standing up for the same issues. Never forget that despite our minor differences as human beings, we have a lot more in common.”
Students said the assembly was different than others they have experienced.
Senior Kodi Vines said Scott reached students who had otherwise stayed silent about their fears or troubles.
“I know a lot of people who are going through rough times and are scared to talk to counselors,” Vines said.
Senior Grant Ekdahl agreed Scott made an important difference.
“I bet his coming here really saved quite a few lives,” Ekdahl said.
Scott closed by assuring students that if he could overcome obstacles and succeed so could they. Then he urged students to seek out a trusted adult – a parent, relative, counselor, or teacher – if they are considering hurting themselves or fear for their safety.
“You too can have a future better than your past,” Scott said.