“If I can help somebody as I pass along, if I can cheer somebody with a word or song, if I can show somebody how they’re traveling wrong...
“Then my living shall not be in vain.”
Manny Scott’s passion was echoed with every lyric.
Coming from a broken place, Scott simply wasn’t supposed to make it.
His mother worked hard to make ends meet. His father has been incarcerated almost his entire life, and he’s only met him 11 times, for a total of 15 hours. His stepfather was addicted to crack and “became possessed,” abusing his mother and him.
“I used to cry myself to sleep,” Scott said, “wondering if there was hope for people like me.”
He soon became immersed in the broken lifestyle. He moved around, lived in 26 different places, never had a blanket, pillow or food, resorting to sifting through garbage for something to get him through the night.
Things didn’t get any better at school. He was surrounded by students with new clothes, new shoes, among other things.
They looked happy.
Scott wondered, “Why does everyone seem so happy?”
In class, Scott was never the type to answer questions during class; he was embarrassed. But one day after not doing his homework, his sixth-grade teacher singled him out.
“No one at home could help you?” She said. “If you don’t get your act together, you’re going to end up just like your daddy. Isn’t he in prison?”
He didn’t have the proper lexicon at the time to respond back. All he could say was, “Yes, ma’am.”
By the age of 11, he was getting high, stealing cars and got a tattoo courtesy of a man named “Big Richard.”
That was the lifestyle. He was OK with it. He was with, what he viewed, as the right type of people. They were broken people who just wanted to feel like they belonged.
By his freshman year of high school, his lack of attentiveness netted him a dreadful .6 grade point average.
“I missed up to 90 days a year, from fourth to ninth grade,” Scott said. “I was a class clown, silly, stupid.”
Regardless of his antics, his best friend, Alex, never judged him. Alex was a model student and a good person.
“He was a good dude, man,” Scott said. “Just a good guy.”
Before school ended one day, Alex was going to hang out with Scott. Scott waited all night.
He never showed up.
Alex had been jumped on the way to see Scott. He was choked by guitar strings, had his throat slit and was thrown off a cliff.
“When he died, part of me died with him,” Scott said. “I gave up and dropped out.”
Scott then got into “stupid stuff”; he was getting chased by cops and helicopters.
He thought, “People like me ain’t supposed to make it.”
One day, he sat on a park bench in Long Beach, California. Thoughts of ending it all were creeping in.
“My story was over,” Scott said. “There was no future for me. I was just going to be like my daddy.
Scott was in a quagmire of misery.
As he sat on that bench, a drug addict sat beside him, studied him and then began to beg Scott.
“Man, don’t be like me,” he said. “Don’t throw your life away like I did. Don’t be like me.”
The words “don’t be like me” echoed inside of Scott. Something needed to change. He went back to his old school to re-enroll and get his life back on track.
When he went back, he was reminded of his poor grades and bad conduct. He got on his knees and begged for just one more chance. He got it.
His first semester back, he worked tirelessly, flaunting five A’s and two B’s. He was getting back on track.
“I did it. I can do this,” Scott said. “That was the moment for me, and I was proud of myself.”
Then, he got into Erin Gruwell’s English class. The woman, whose students affectionately referred to her as Ms. G., initially got on the wrong foot with her students.
She was a former cheerleader, who had a pep to her step that no student had seen before.
“She seems nice, but she ain’t gonna make it,” the class thought.
She tried to instill the teachings of William Shakespeare and Geoffrey Chaucer, but it didn’t take. A friend of Scott’s was initially confused.
“Why we got to read about dead white guys in tights?” his friend said.
The next day, she put a verse from now-late rapper Tupac Shakur on the board, showing that he was doing what Shakespeare was doing, thus forging a connection.
“So, Ms. G recognized ‘If I’m going to get their attention, why not just talk about the stuff that they like?’” Scott said. “‘Then, teach them stuff that they don’t know about.’”
She connected with them through Shakur and Snoop Dogg, their heroes, their modern-day poets.
The connection grew deeper, especially with Scott, helping him express himself, helping understand the problems he was going through.
Most importantly, she pushed him. She saw his potential.
“I will help you, but you’ve got to work,” Gruwell said. “Life doesn’t care about your problems.”
Gruwell pushed him to go to college, stacking her desk with applications for Scott to see.
He picked up an application from the University of California at Berkeley, asked about it and asked where it was.
“It’s where Jason Kidd played basketball!” Gruwell said.
He didn’t apply to UCB because Kidd played basketball there. He chose it because of Gruwell’s enthusiasm, her tone.
He then got a letter from UCB. He was accepted.
“Manny, we got in!” Gruwell said.
He spent hours at Barnes and Noble, trying to solve every single problem. He was scared, didn’t know if he could do it.
“All of those people who said I wouldn’t make it … I’ve come too far,” Scott said.
He went on to graduate from UCB with two degrees, one for himself and one for Alex.
He then got a call following graduation. It was Gruwell, pushing him to get a master’s degree.
He then got a master’s degree, and is now working on a PhD.
Scott goes around the country, telling his story. He prides himself on not being the exception, but breaking the glass ceiling.
Gruwell was the exception in his eyes. Their story is told in the 2007 film “Freedom Writers,” with Hilary Swank portraying Gruwell and a character named Marcus closely resembling Scott. The film shows how much Gruwell believed in each and every one of her students.
Scott tries to impart that message across the country.
“You can be the exception,” Scott said. “On your worst day, you may be their last chance.”
Scott has spoken to troubled youth and has saved people on the verge of suicide by talking with them and just letting them know how special each individual is.
Scott’s words are infectious, inspiring those who don’t believe in themselves. It’s a burden, having to hear depressing tales, but it’s a burden he accepts.
Now, he cries for the stories he hears, hoping that he can inspire and give those hope. The kind of hope he sought before.
It’s his calling.
“I believe I went through all of the stuff that I went through to prepare me to go back and help others who are still there,” Scott said. “That doesn’t feel good; it’s not fun; it’s not exciting, but it’s what I was created to do. I don’t believe I was called to be happy or successful, I believe I was called to be faithful.
“I believe I have been called to go to broken places and to help hurting people.”
Mackey Torres is the regional editor at the Bee-Picayune and can be reached at 343-5219, or at regional@mySouTex.com.