WAR IN THE CLASSROOM
If you have ever taught 14 to 15-year olds in a tough urban school, you will know that the experience varies from life-affirming and warm-hearted hilarity, to trawling the lowest depths of Hell, and with a regular emphasis on the latter. At one stage in the acclaimed 2008 film The Class (aka Entre Les Murs ) a curly haired and gentle young teacher, plunges into the staff room after a particularly infernal session, and exclaims in despair and rage:
“I’m sick of these clowns. They know nothing. They can stay in their shit. Kevin for example, spent a whole hour in class doing this (pulls a grotesque sideways leer) Nyah, nyah, nyah!”
The teacher looks close to breakdown, but will rally, pick himself up and start again with his next class, as will the rest of his dour, infinitely resilient and touchingly principled colleagues. It is somewhere around 2005, in a deprived multi-ethnic area in the Paris suburbs, and most of the film is set inside the classroom of Francois Marin, an idealistic though assertive French teacher, who is in his early thirties. Marin is played by the journalist and author Francois Begaudeau (born 1971) a former Parisian schoolteacher who wrote the novel Between the Walls, on which the film is based. It was directed by Laurent Cantet (born 1961) both of whose parents were teachers, and deservedly won numerous awards, including the Palme D’Or at Cannes in 2008. One of the judging panel at Cannes was the celebrity actor Sean Penn (born 1960) who described it as ‘a perfect movie’.
Marin’s struggling attempts to be an effective teacher inside his classroom, are interleaved with briefer playground and staffroom scenes, where for example the teachers confer and argue about how to reward and discipline the more troublesome of their students. One conservative colleague believes an incremental points system like that of a driving licence might get more compliance, but Marin is sceptical. There is also the business of indirect, i.e. at a remove responsibility, for if they punish any of their pupils with sanctions, and their parents learn of it, some of them will also beat their erring child and thus inflict a double punishment. Add to that, and this is one of the few things that is not forensically explored in The Class, but only via the justifiable scepticism of the students themselves, much of the syllabus Marin works through with the kids, is of a top heavy and antiquated nature, including highly technical grammatical terminology such as the imperfect subjunctive (of which more later) as well as decorous metrical analysis on the lines of tercets and quatrains. All of this makes for ripe comedy, as the class of about 20 kids, a goodly proportion being of North African, West African or Chinese extraction, are grilled on the matter of comprehension and vocabulary specifically.
MARIN: Yes, there are some difficult words here: ‘condescension’, ‘argentites’ and ‘henceforth’. No, no, Rachid, ‘argentites’ doesn’t mean ‘from Argentina’. And Rachid, you didn’t know what ‘succulent’ meant (someone at the back ventures ‘suck off’, followed by general hilarity, which Marin expertly ignores). Well it means ‘juicy’, ‘ripe’, ‘appetising’, and if we are talking of food ‘delicious’. So, let me give you an example on the blackboard
Bill enjoys a succulent cheeseburger
SOULEYMANE (his parents are from Mali, and he is portrayed here by Franck Keita) : But cheeseburgers are really shit, they’re not succu…
ESMERALDA (who has a North African surname) What’s with the name ‘Bill’ anyway? Why do you always use weird names?
MARIN: Weird? Why, a recent US president was called…
ESMERALDA: But you always use whitey, honky names! Why don’t you use Aissata or Rachid or Ahmed?
Her scepticism is even more justified when Esmeralda asks him why the indicative as in ‘imperfect indicative’ is so called. Momentarily speechless, Marin ingeniously throws the question open, whereupon a dozy looking lad at the back stuns everyone by saying:
“To distinguish it from the imperfect subjunctive!”
Esmeralda sneers, then demands that Marin give an example of the latter on his blackboard
After some thought, he scrawls laboriously:
I wished that I were fit
As distinct from the present subjunctive, which he also scrawls:
He demands that I be fit
ESMERALDA: You are kidding! Do you think I’m going to talk to my Mum like that? ‘I wish that I be fit, Mum!’ Don’t you see? None of this shit applies to us.
These vaudeville exchanges are extremely entertaining, but the banter can get far more seditious, barbed and potentially humiliating. This occurs when Marin is asked to explain what the word ‘posh’ means, because Khouba, a resentful West African girl (played by Rachel Regulier) does not understand it. Marin tries with the synonyms of ‘affected’ and ‘mannered’, which of course none of them recognise, but then Boubacar who sits in front of Souleymane, suggests it might mean ‘homosexual’. After the general merriment, Souleymane then slyly asks Marin, and as if he has rehearsed it:
“I shouldn’t say this, sir. But it’s what I’ve heard. They say that you like men. Is that true?”
Marin is impressive at this crucial point as he gently berates the boy for several things, including idle gossip and sexual prejudice, and then, after quite some time, quietly affirms that he is not gay, and leaves it at that. As it happens, Souleymane has an impressive track record of insolence and bare faced lying to all his teachers. He regularly says he has forgotten his schoolbooks, and will write it all up at home tonight, which of course he never does. When his brother and Mum come in for Parents’ Night, they are baffled to hear this, as he had assured them that he worked hard at school and was doing very well. His school reports are far from positive, but he craftily makes sure that his Mum and no one else sees them, as she can neither read nor understand French. Meanwhile, the precise manner of the taunting and needling of teacher Marin, varies with the gender of the student and two girls in particular, Khouba and Esmeralda, are experts at tying him in knots with their accusatory arguments. In effect, and this applies to all Marin’s colleagues, the staff spend most of their lessons defending their professional and personal cases, like battered litigants who are attacked by up to half a dozen antagonists in a row, rather than just one. Khouba, for example, refuses to read aloud from The Diary of Anne Frank, and when Marin insists, barks back, No way, and claims with nil justification and just for the hell of it, that he is picking on her. Marin’s unfortunate if understandable tactic, is to respond with mannered (posh?) irony, which of course a tough nut like Khouba can brush off with steely contempt.
“So the class here has to revolve around your desires, does it?” he asks far too reasonably.
Marin is worn out by this permanent battle to get them to do their work, but being an idealist heroically persists. He has them all write Self Portraits, and remarkably Souleymane illustrates his with moving photographs of his family and friends, as well as a close up of the tattoo calligraphy on his arms, which he claims is from sacred scripture. Marin is delighted and pins it up for all to see, while Souleymane grins and modestly says no it’s just shit really. Equally touching. is the Chinese boy Wei who reads aloud his Self Portrait, where he admits his French isn’t very good, and that there is much he cannot understand going on around him, and so feels lonely. He says he spends at least 4 hours a day on video games and rarely goes outside, as he also has an allergic condition. Allergic to what, someone interrupts. I don’t know he replies. Esmeralda then wisely snaps, you’re allergic to yourself! This is the same Esmeralda who in her Self Portrait says that when she leaves school, she wants to be either a policewoman (they are all supposed to be bad, so I want one of them to be good) or… a rapper. Souleymane takes umbrage at these crazy choices and sneers at anyone wanting to be a cop. As the argument escalates, he nastily assures her that she has bad breath, and even offers to buy her a toothbrush.
Souleymane’s next argument proves fateful, for he falls out with a Moroccan boy who is giving a talk about Africans and their role in World Football, so that they angrily dispute the merits of Malian and Moroccan soccer stars. To make things worse, Marin is very angry with the 2 student representatives, Esmeralda and Louise, who have disclosed to Souleymane that in a staff meeting their teacher described the Mali boy as academically ‘limited’, scarcely as incendiary a comment as they would have it. As they sneeringly justify themselves, he also says they behaved appallingly in the same meeting, giggling and even guzzling snacks like a pair of petasses, meaning like ‘sluts’. This of course is a grave mistake on his part, that as a teacher in loco parentis, he chooses to use loaded and inappropriate language towards two 14-year-old children. Now, as Marin intercedes in the football row, Souleymane who has just been told that he is ‘limited’, shouts and swears at his treacherous teacher. He then storms out of the classroom, but his rucksack catches Khouba near the eye with the edge of a metal clasp. There is a great deal of blood, and she needs stitches, so that a staff meeting is soon convened to decide on the disciplinary measures. Marin again argues for leniency, and especially when injured Khouba insists that it was an accident, and she also adds that if he is expelled his Dad will probably send him back to Mali, a fate worse than death. Then when Souleymane eventually turns up to the disciplinary meeting, he brings only his Mum along. She is decked up in her best and very beautiful Mali clothes, and is eloquent in her son’s defence, though sadly not in French. Her son has to translate for her, for of course the teachers don’t know any Bambara nor any of the other dozen Mali languages. According to his translation, she says Souleymane often looks after his younger siblings and helps his Mum in the house in many ways, and is generally a fine and unselfish son.
None of which pleading works, and Souleymane is permanently expelled from the school, though the headmaster says they will do their best to find him another. The film ends with a hectic and hilarious end of year football match between the students and the staff, which seems in a wisely understated manner to spell out how much real affection exists on both sides, as when both parties step outside their customary roles. But before the match, Marin asks his class what they have learned and liked in the last 12 months at school. Most of them have something positive, or at least polite to say, but fearless Esmeralda is true to form, when she declares that she has enjoyed nothing inside the school, and that everything here is shit.
However, she adds in a rush, at home things were a bit different, for there she had read and had liked a certain book called The Republic.
Marin asks her in wonderment. “By Plato?”
“Really? Is it your own book?”
“No, it’s my sister’s. She’s a university student.”
“A student of philosophy?”
“A student of law.”
Then Esmeralda adds victoriously. “And The Republic is not the book of a slut!”
The next post will be on or before Friday, November 8th