Saturday, October 31, 2009

Movie Time

One day about halfway through my eighth-grade year, my art class had a substitute teacher. There was a guy in my class named Steve Butts who was at least 17 at the time, but possibly 18 or 19. He had literally not done a single art project the entire year, and the regular teacher, who was clearly a little bit afraid of him, never attempted to get him to do one beyond a gentle "Hey Steve, do you think you want to try this one today?" every once in a while.

We were doing "pottery" (if you want to call it that) the day we had the substitute. Towards the end of class, and completely unprovoked, Steve rolled up a baseball-size lump of clay, reared back, and delivered it like a split-finger fastball right to the substitute's temple. The substitute, who was probably nearing 70, sort of hunched over with her head in her hands and then went behind some file cabinets and started crying. And that was it. Nobody reported it to the principal or the cops or even asked the teacher if she was okay. Steve didn't get expelled or arrested for battery. We all just stared at our desks until the period ran out and then left. It was just high school.

There are a lot of movies about bad high schools; it's practically become its own genre. But I've never seen one that comes closer to capturing what it's like, on a day to day basis, to go to a shitty high school than The Class. It takes place in a French school, apparently in a rough suburb of Paris, but it could easily be relocated to DeKalb County.

The movie just focuses on one teacher as he struggles to keep order in his French language class, trying to teach quatrains to students who have only a shaky grasp of basic grammar. It doesn't romanticize--or demonize--either the teacher, the students (a fair number of whom are immigrants from places like Haiti or Morocco), or the school. There's no gang subplot and the teacher doesn't smoke crack, but there's no "Stand and Deliver" moment either. It's just day in, day out public school life. There's no real plot, unless you count a troublemaker (who also shows some promise) getting expelled for an episode in class that the teacher himself might have provoked by referring to two of the girl students as "skanks."

What it captures best, I think, is the low-level insanity that's pervasive in a lot of public schools. The kind where any oral presentation can turn into a shouting match or a fight and any attempt by the teacher to keep order will get him accused--openly, by the students--of being a "racist." It only teeters on sentimental for a moment at the end when we learn that one of the "skanks" has been reading Plato on her own. But the teenage actors are unbelievably good--everyone of them reminded me of someone I went to school with--and they're far better than the adults. It is a pretty remarkable movie.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

That story may be the single most depressing thing I've ever heard in my life. Seriously. On a lot of levels.


10/31/2009 11:30 PM  
Blogger deuce deuce said...

I thought the students in that movie were assholes and the teacher had no sense of what it means to manage a classroom. Being a school teacher is hard work, but the teacher teaches mostly boring crap and lets the kids say whatever stream of conscious shit that comes out of their mouths --so of course the teacher's life is miserable. It was a free-for-all. I for one am still waiting for a thought-provoking movie about public schools. I file this movie under "Public Schools are fucked" --which gets us nowhere and is an exaggeration to say the least.

11/03/2009 4:45 PM  
Blogger deuce deuce said...

okay, that was a little harsh. the movie was a challenge to watch but the teacher's decision to be open to the kids' personalities, behaviors, etc is pretty admirable. By "putting it all on the table," maybe some of the students will learn a little about what it's like to have respect for one's self and others. Then again, I don't think any teacher could keep that up for long without getting fired or quitting.

11/03/2009 5:03 PM  
Blogger il Gatto Grande said...

Well, I don't think the teacher is supposed to serve as any sort of role model. He's not a complete fuck-up, but the movie makes it pretty clear that he's partly responsible for getting a kid expelled. Also, it should be pretty clear you can't refer to a student as a skank.

I also disagree that the movie can be summed up as "public schools suck." There are an awful lot of classrooms that resemble the one in the movie, but the movie itself is more of just a portrait than a lesson.

11/04/2009 9:46 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Whoever wrote this is a total fag.

7/21/2010 1:15 PM  

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