Art Imitating Life

Yesterday I saw a movie you'll all love ... if you enjoy subtitles and uncomfortable recollections of those times you messed up in your job.

The movie is The Class, and it's about one class of junior high students in an inner-city school in Paris. Are you snoring yet?

As you may have guessed, The Class is a teacher movie.

You know, like Dangerous Minds, which told the American public that anybody can teach gang members, as long as you let them read rap lyrics instead of the assigned curriculum. Or like The Ron Clark Story, which tells us being in the hospital is no reason not to go to school, because you can always get a friend to videotape your lessons. Or Half Nelson, which tells us that awesome teachers are awesome teachers, even if they smoke heroin in the school bathroom. Or my favorite--the movie that inspired me to become an English teacher--Dead Poets Society, which told me that the best teachers make their students stand on desks and create secret societies and eventually get fired because, inevitably, one of your students is going to kill himself.

But The Class is different, and that's its best quality. See, all of those movies I listed up there are good, and they're entertaining, but they're not indicative of real life. At least, they're not indicative of MY real life.

Because, trust me, I would LOOOOOOOOOVE to get my students to care enough to talk about the similarities between rap and poetry. I DO think I'm a dedicated teacher, even though I enjoy my sick days because I DON'T HAVE TO GO TO SCHOOL. I am an awesome teacher even WITHOUT illegal drugs (but I will cut a person if I have to teach decaffeinated). And my students show their respect through their work, through their visits after graduation, through their numerous (denied) Facebook friend requests, and their ability and desire to NOT KILL THEMSELVES.

So I was excited to see The Class, because it promised to be the opposite of the inspirational, devotes-everything-to-her-craft, superhero teacher movie. Instead, it was something wholly different: IT WAS REAL.

The movie deals with one class of freshman-aged students in their grammar/literature class. The teacher is stressed and overworked, he worries about his performance, about his ability, about what he's really teaching, and about his kids--not just as students, but as PEOPLE.

There's this fantastic part where one teacher storms in talking about how the kids are animals and they'll never learn anything and they might as well stay at home and why should he bother anyway. That is a scene that plays out in my mind at least once a week, if not once a day. (Depends on the day.) After his tiny little rant, he looks up, sheepish, at his colleagues, takes a breath, and goes back to class.

At this particular school, there's a review every grading period, where all the teachers of a certain class get together to discuss the students' progress, their behavior, and their futures. Apparently, they also invite student representatives, because two girls from the class were at the meeting, physically, but not mentally, present.

I knew immediately that this would cause a problem, and here's why: students don't think the same way as teachers.

Duh, you're probably saying, and you'd be right to do so. But I think this is something that needs to be repeated ad nauseum until certain persons (ahem, Department of Education) understand that.

If I'm talking about a student with another teacher, and I mention the student's limited abilities, we both know that we're talking about the student's specific knowledge AT THIS TIME. However, people who aren't familiar with that jargon, or who tend to hear everything as an insult anyway, will automatically assume that the teacher has called the student stupid, and that he is implying that the student will never advance.

This is exactly what happens in the film. The class reps immediately report to the rest of the class, but they not only report the information fallaciously, they also edit their information in order to create the most drama possible. Oh, and it does. The whole room erupts in a shouting match, the teacher tells the class reps they acted like skanks, and a student's face is cut by a piece of metal as the "limited" student storms out of the class.

Now, what I like about this movie is that it's not about the angelic teacher, just as it's not about the blameless students; everybody is at fault in this particular episode. But it's easy to see why each event happened as it did, and it's also easy to see that each side thinks it's in the right, and further, it's easy to see that there's no way this is going to end well.

The class reps tattle on the teacher--again editing their information by not referring to their part in the dust-up. The teacher confronts the students and, by trying to explain himself, only digs a deeper hole. The student who left the room goes before a disciplinary committee but, having heard and believed that he is, in fact, "limited," states that he doesn't care what they do and pretty much guarantees his own expulsion.

The movie is very true, because some days I might have the BEST CLASS EVER, but the next time I see those kids, I want to send them all to military school. There are some great class discussions where everyone gets involved except that ONE kid, but there are also times when the class consists of "Why do we have to learn this?" and "This is stupid."

I like, too, that the movie depicts all kinds of teachers, from the gruff old "These kids are worthless" guy to the "I'm here to rescue them" guy. They're not stereotypes; they're multi-faceted PEOPLE. As they discuss students, they discuss the WHOLE student, not just his grades, not just his behavior, but how one affects the other and how both affect the entire class. They argue, they plead, they lay out dogma and textbook cases and past experience, and THEY ARE ALL ME.

Many times, as I was watching the film, I found myself slouching down in my seat, or cringing, or covering my eyes, or shaking my head. Many times, I recognized myself in that teacher, and my mistakes in his mistakes.

Oooh. It was rough, let me tell you.

But ... totally, totally worth it.


Shannon said...

I'll have to watch that one since I've seen all the other "non-real life" movies about fabulous teachers.

Allison said...

Interesting....I posted about this movie too, but I had a different view of it. I enjoyed reading your post - it helped me think about the movie from a different perspective, so thank you!


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