Sitting in a small circle at South Tahoe Middle School, a group of sixth- and eighth-graders wrote down their dreams and what it will take to achieve them.
And Manuel Scott, an original freedom writer whose story is told in the 2007 Hollywood film, was there to support them every word along the way.
"Your life is a book. We all have stories. If you're in a chapter in your life that you're not happy with, you can turn the page," Scott said Thursday to the students. "Too many people get to this chapter in their lives and they just close the book."
Scott asked the STMS students to write down their grades, the names of their close friends and their goals. He carefully listened to the answers - dreams ranged from being a professional soccer player to owning lots of snakes to joining the military - before having the students close their eyes and leap into the future.
"Imagine yourself one year from now. If you don't pick up your grades, if you don't improve your relationships, if you don't change your attitude, what kind of person will you be one year from now? What about two years? Look at yourself," Scott said.
"This is the good news - it's not five years from now, it's today, and the great news is that you can change who you are today. That's my life. I made a decision that I didn't want to be like my older brothers, like my dad," he said.
Scott said he's found that life can change in a moment. His epiphany came to him when a stranger approached him as he was sitting on a park bench. The man asked Scott the same questions he now asks students, and it made him realize he had the power to shift course.
From a high school dropout with a 0.6 GPA to a keynote speaker with degrees from University of California, Berkeley and Trinity International University, Scott is a powerful and relatable role model for the STMS students, STMS teacher Cindy Cowen said.
Scott, who travels the country delivering inspirational speeches at schools and other venues, first came to STMS in January 2008. Cowen invited Scott to help her with a class she described as unreachable.
"I really didn't know what to do with them. They were hopeless. They hated themselves and each other. I tried everything," Cowen said.
Then she took the group to see "Freedom Writers," a movie about a young teacher who inspires her class of at-risk students to learn tolerance and pursue education after high school. Cowen's class loved it, and soon were clamoring for a speaker like the one in the film.
When Cowen's daughter ran into Scott's manager at Costco, Cowen knew she'd found a perfect match. She applied to a grant from the El Dorado Community Foundation to bring Scott to the middle school, and three months later he was in the South Shore classroom.
"I think he can relate to them. I think they see hope in his questions and his life. The way their life is can be turned around," Cowen said.
Scott has appointments booked through February 2014 from California to Georgia, but he said STMS will always hold a special place in his heart. He still communicates with the first group of middle schoolers that he spoke with in 2008.
"I love them. I love these kids. I believe in (Beth Delacour and Cindy Cowen's) vision for these kids. Their approach to education is a model for a lot of other school districts. They try to educate the whole child," Scott said.