We saw the Class yesterday, though at first I had sort of hesitated, asking myself if I really wanted to relive teaching unmotivated French adolescents from the lower classes. Class, itself, has its own subtleties. It always does.
I had my jaw agape the whole way through thinking that this had to be some sort of semi-documentary, because there was no way an acted scenario could be that accurate. From the click the peeved African student would make to the utter chaos of students talking over each other to the teachers’ dialogues, it was all there. Although I have to say, a couple of things confused me:
1. The teacher only appeared to have this one class. I’ve never even heard of that. Granted, the movie was more appealing focused on 25 students rather than 250.
2. The students were frankly a bit more curious about language than I ever remember. Granted, I was teaching 90 percent boys in a vocational school, which is merely the threat lurking over the heads of the jr. high kids in the movie.
A couple of things also became clearer. First of all, nobody ever told me that if a student referred to me as tu rather than vous, it was grounds for severe punishment. The reaction of the other students in the class at the time hinted at it, and I didn’t like it, but still. Second, the whole ethnicity thing is really interesting.
Nearly all the ethnic kids in the movie, and in my classes, were culturally Muslim and of sub-Saharan or north African descent. This didn’t mean they got along. However, it did contribute to a potential group hostility that was missing from any other class I’ve taught anywhere. It wasn’t just race, or religion, or situation; it was sort of this toxic combination of cultural norms. It was worst in the boys. Take the vague cultural assumption, probably never expressed but latent in most home life, that women should be covered head to toe to qualify as modest and that men are naturally more right and holy than women, and add emerging testosterone. With students from sub-Sahara this was counterbalanced by traditional matriarchal roles; interestingly, in the parent-teacher conferences in the movie, the African student’s mother is the one who attends, while the Arab student has his father present.
But add to this mix government-subsidized housing rife with dozens if not hundreds of similar boys. Add to this mix ennui. Add to it the Western adolescent fantasy that though we’re too important to do our degrading homework, we deserve whatever we want. Add to it no job skills (a logical result of the above). Add to it no money (a logical result of the above). Add to it that in France, to do anything or be anybody, you’ve kind of got to have money.
This is what you get. This is not all of what you get, either bad or good, and the movie does a good job expressing the humanity behind and surrounding this. Still, I doubt anyone leaving the theater will be suddenly inspired to teach in France’s low-income housing or in the vocational schools.