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Austin students hear from real-life Freedom Writer Manny Scott

February 15, 2019

As an author and speaker, Manny Scott knows the power of words.

Talking to students at Austin High School on Wednesday, it wasn’t his words he was concerned about.

“Your words have the power to keep people living or push someone over the edge,” he told about 1,500 students assembled in the Knowlton Auditorium.

Scott grew up in a drug- and gang-infested neighborhood in Long Beach, Calif. His father was incarcerated; Scott dropped out of school at age 14 and had lived in 26 places by age 16. His best friend, Alex, who skipped two grades and was bound for UCLA, was murdered.

Alex’s death sent Scott into despair.

“When I lost Alex, I lost hope,” Scott said. “If he couldn’t make it out (of the neighborhood), ain’t none of us going to make it out.”

A park bench conversation with a stranger, an older man admittedly addicted to crack, urged Scott not to “end up like me.”

“This complete stranger pushed me off a bench and back to school,”

He went back to school and ended up in the back of Erin Gruwell’s English class — a group now known as the Freedom Writers, portrayed in a bestselling book, “The Freedom Writers Diary” and a 2007 hit MTV movie.

Scott became the first member of his family to graduate high school. He went on to graduate college — picking up two degrees at UC Berkley.

“One for me and one for my best friend Alex,” Scott said.

Scott founded educational consulting firm Ink International Inc. and is currently pursuing a doctorate degree.

However, his appearance Wednesday wasn’t about him, he said. He started his presentation asking students to stand if a statement he said applied to them or remain seated if it didn’t.

“I need you to teach me about you,” he said, in an exercise reminiscent of the “Freedom Writers” movie.

As students stood affirming their experiences with difficult life situations including abuse, alcoholism or drug use, Scott pointed out others standing with them.

“You are not alone,” he said. “There’s some teachers and staff standing with you.”

Scott encouraged people to accept the help and support of school staff.

He shared parts of his story, including trying to help defend his mom from an abuser who gashed her neck.

He recalled putting his full strength into the fight.

“I lost,” he said.

“It kind of caught me off guard,” said Shelissa Bentzin, a freshman student. “I didn’t know he had gone through so much.”

What was more eye opening is how much some of her fellow students deal with every day.

“There’s a lot of people out there hurting,” she said.

“I was the kid who took all those issues with me to school,” Scott told the crowd. “Instead of encouraging me, classmates made fun of my hair, my shoes, my family.”

That’s a reason Scott wrote down his words and experiences as part of the Freedom Writers project and speaks to students around the world now. Words have power, he told students. Use them wisely.

“Your words have the power to keep people living or push someone over the edge,” he said. “I beg you, because words almost caused me to take my own life.”