words follow me

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archive of essays by Teju Cole for NEXT newspaper

rule-maker, rule-breaker

A grammar teacher, in the course of a lesson, writes the following example on the blackboard: “Bill had a succulent cheeseburger.” Immediately, hands shoot up in the classroom. “Bill? What kind of name is that?” The teacher, puzzled, says that Bill is an eminently normal name. There was a recent US president named Bill, he reminds them. The students respond, “We don’t know why you always use these honky white names.” They suggest he use something more normal: names like Aissatou or Rachida.

They then go on to argue that, anyway, intricate grammatical rules like the imperfect subjunctive are irrelevant to the way people speak today. The teacher is white, his pupils, as you will have guessed, are mostly not. This scene, from Laurent Cantet’s film The Class, neatly encapsulates the ongoing crisis in French education. The Class, nominated for the Best Foreign Film Oscar this year, is set in a tough Parisian neighbourhood. It centres on the young teacher, François Marin, and his volatile charges. The character of Marin is played by François Bégaudeau, who in real life wrote a book about his experience as a teacher to French immigrant students, students much like the ones in the film.

Marin, when we first meet him, is intelligent, open-minded, and frank, and is easy to like. We are early on introduced to his skepticism. He knows how difficult life is for his students, but on the other hand, he’s not fooled by their many excuses to avoid doing their schoolwork. With a mixture of pleading, cajoling, charming and laying down the law, he attempts to get the best out of each of them. They, for their parts, do what teenagers everywhere do: try to get away with as much as they possibly can.

The teacher-student conflict is emphasised by the fact of their diverse homelands: Senegal, Mali, the French Caribbean, Morocco, Algeria, China. Some of these kids don’t come from French-speaking backgrounds, others are being practically raised by their older siblings, and one has a parent who is facing deportation. These facts help heighten not only the artificiality of the classroom encounter, but also some of its latent tensions. When Marin gives an assignment to the students to write biographical essays on themselves, we understand their reluctance. They all but accuse him of voyeurism, of trying to gain confidences he hasn’t quite earned. He insists, not entirely convincingly, that he truly cares about them and wants to know about their lives.

The kids are likeable. Even those of them who are doing badly in their schoolwork have a kind of street-smart sharpness that one can’t help but admire. They don’t want to be bossed around. Marin, no despot, nevertheless feels that he ought to exercise control over the classroom. Some of these tensions begin to boil over when one bright black student, Khoumba (played by the hugely gifted Rachel Regulier), refuses to participate when called on in class. In the post-class discussion he has with her, Marin insists that she apologise for her earlier surly attitude. The scene is painful to watch. She’s much younger than he is, of an ethnic minority, chafing under a teacher’s arbitrary authority. What we see through her eyes is not a mere teacher-student interaction, but one person needlessly using official power against another.

Marin, meanwhile, is intent on following the logic of that authority to its conclusion, however distasteful. He insists, and eventually extracts his apology, but we see that by then the student has lost respect, and any vestiges of affection she might have had, for him. And in him, too, there is a note of regret: after all, he is liberal, open-minded, not the sort to ever judge anyone based on place of origin or skin colour. But, as a teacher, as a French civil servant following a set syllabus, he is already implicated in a subtle form of oppression.

But this is only the beginning of Marin’s troubles. A Malian boy in the class, the seeming easy-going Souleymane, has a moment of anger and inadvertently injures a classmate. More troublingly, at least to Marin, Souleymane storms out of class, making it clear he doesn’t care what anyone thinks of him. By the school’s rules, a hearing must be held; it is likely that the result will be expulsion. This is a result Marin is keen to avoid, as he genuinely likes the boy. But Marin himself complicates the disciplinary process. In a moment of annoyance, he had addressed two clever but scheming girls in the class with the word pétasse-word quickly spreads around the school that Marin is calling his students “sluts.” Souleymane is facing a hearing, but the teacher can call students by rude names? Who’s the real rule-breaker here?

The Class dramatises these various conflicts absorbingly. Director Laurent Cantet made the film using three hand-held cameras, which catch not just the scripted action but also some of the longueurs and tedium of classroom life. Much of the lighting is natural, and the students, some of whom were actually in Bégaudeau’s real-life class, add immeasurably to the documentary feel of the result. It is not a “feel-good” film, but it is one that feels true to life: events take on a life of their own, and conflicts great and small seem to sprout from the most innocuous interactions. There is no neat ending. But, without explicitly doing so, The Class gives us an insight into the simmering immigrant distress that has hampered France in the last few years, most notably in the fiery riots that engulfed the Parisian suburbs called the banlieues.

The French want to insist that immigrants subjugate themselves, their cultures, and their habits into an overarching “Frenchness.” The immigrants, as far as they are able, try to get across the message that respect is a two-way street, and that to live and work in France does not mean becoming imitation Frenchmen.

The original title of the film, Entre Les Murs (“Between the Walls”), serves Cantet’s project better: the true subject here is what happens between the literal walls of a school room, as well as between the metaphorical walls created by rules. One leaves The Class wondering whether, as Marin insists, you have to know the rules before you break them, or whether it is Khoumba and her mates who are in the right: France has changed, the world has changed, and the usual rules no longer apply.

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