Up Against the Walls

Up Against the Walls

Class and Race in Entre Les Murs

The French title of Laurent Cantet’s The Class, the sleeper hit at this year’s Cannes Film festival, is Entre Les Murs–literally, “between the walls.” This is perhaps a more apt title for this faux-documentary film about a young male teacher in a diverse inner-city middle school in Paris. Based on the novel by François Bégaudeau, a real-life teacher who derived his novel’s material from his own teaching experiences, the film succeeds by conveying not only the claustrophobia inherent to a classroom full of hostile teenagers, but the panic and chaos that set in when the teacher loses control.

As a former teacher at Christopher Columbus High School, a campus of 4000 plus students in the northeast Bronx, I was initially wary of The Class. I feared that it would merely revive the cliché (albeit with a French twist) of the saintly white teacher who successfully “reaches” a classroom of rowdy minority students. Instead, I found a film that was touching not only in its avoidance of expected Hollywood tropes, but also in its portrayal of a teacher who is sympathetic by virtue of his own shortcomings.

French literature and language teacher François Marin (Bégaudeau’s alter-ego of sorts, played by Bégaudeau himself) is creative and charismatic, engaging his students in the particulars of French grammar through clever repartee, and—in a lesson I would like to steal from him—using the Diary of Anne Frank as a model for verbal self-portraits that the students must then write.

But François also endures miserable failures. The most drastic of these occurs midway through the film, when François snaps in a particularly heated conversation and refers to two students as “skanks.” Although François pushes his students intellectually, he consistently doubts their ability, at one point expressing unabashed disbelief that a particularly irksome student could have read Plato on her own. François drops the ball in his dealings with the token “tough” student, the hardened young pugilist with whom—in any Hollywood film—the teacher would eventually connect. François does not merely fail to reach this student in any long-term sense; ultimately his own actions exacerbate an explosive situation in which the student in involved, leading to the student’s expulsion and François’s loss of credibility with his co-workers and supervisors.

The undercurrents of racial tension in François’s classroom further undermine his efforts to maintain control. To the film’s credit, the predictable conflict between bourgeois white teacher and low-income minority students, while certainly at play, is not central. Rather, the issues at hand are the students’ cross-cultural clashes with each other, and to a greater extent, their alienation from French society as a whole. Though the school is located in Paris’s gentrifying 20th arrondissement, as opposed to the poor banlieues (suburbs) in which the riots of 2005 and 2007 took place, the memory of civil unrest would still be fresh in a French audience’s mind—and though they never allude to it directly, the students have clearly not forgotten either. At one point, two outspoken students back François into a corner over the issue of why the names used in grammar examples are “honky” names, never “Aissata” or “Fatou.” This seemingly inconspicuous absence reinforces the outsider status of the African and Maghrebin populations in Parisian society. “I don’t feel proud to be French,” one student says matter-of-factly. François can only sputter a meaningless response.

It is not that François, as an educated white man, represents the institution that the students decry; in fact, they seem to bear him little racial resentment. The real problem is that François has no answers for them, cannot assuage their sense of anomie. To an American inner-city teacher, this sense of one’s hands being tied is particularly resonant: The best teachers in the world cannot hide from their inner-city students the fact that they have been marginalized. The evidence is all around them, in the form of outdated textbooks, culturally insensitive curricula, over-crowded classrooms, and dysfunctional schools.

I saw this movie with another teacher, and as we walked out, I asked him the question I felt the film raised: “Is François a good teacher?” My friend did not think so; he was dismayed at François’s inability to control his class or to keep students from veering off topic during lessons. Putting aside François’s unprofessional behavior towards students, my friend said, structure is the essence of good teaching; François imposes none. His students talk back to him, derail his lessons, start fights, and essentially run wild.

Though it may be relevant to note that my friend’s experience is in early childhood special education, as opposed to high school, his points about teaching are not without validity. Yet, I found myself unable to condemn François without taking a serious look at my own classroom management, which was often lacking, or my relationships with students, which sometimes tested the limits of professionalism in the friendships I made.

Was I a bad teacher? I would like to think I was a pretty good one: I had some clever assignments, my students read lots of books, and I formed lasting relationships with a number of kids. But I also know that my own teaching career, like that of many young teachers, probably weighed in the same as François’s does in this film—equal parts brilliance and mediocrity.

Rather than perpetuate the movie myth of the “hero teacher” who somehow saves all the students from themselves, or even that of the “villain teacher” who has no faith in students and takes sadistic pleasure in witnessing their failure, The Class is an ode to average teachers—those committed to educating their students, who know realistically that they will endure as many mishaps as successes along the way. Cantet and Bégaudeau understand that inner-city teaching—both in France and abroad—involves struggling in a sort of gray zone, where qualified success is more common than an outright win. François’s successes are duly downplayed and subtle, so much so that they may only be recognizable to those who have worked in a similar situation: A few students in the beginning of film express pleasure at being taught by François two years in a row, and a barely literate young man, whose verbal self-portrait consists only of simple declarative sentences (“I like soccer. I don’t like strict teachers.”), declares bluntly at the close of his essay, “I like it here.”

One of the film’s closing scenes features an end of the year faculty-student soccer match, wherein Bégaudeau plays jovially alongside students with whom he has previously clashed. Kids on the sidelines scream and cheer; the student players and François clap each other on the shoulders when a goal is scored. Much is left unresolved: François’s relationships with even these students are still strained, and his reputation among the teachers has been tainted by his lapse in judgment. But these final moments of camaraderie signal unambiguously that François will come back to teaching the following year, and that even while he has experienced problems, there is always time for improvement.

It is a worthy, if ambivalent, conclusion to a compelling film. François’s success, like that of all teachers, is not determined by a single climactic achievement. It is determined by the sum total of the time he spends with his students, and his willingness to stay in the game even without tangible victory.

Ilana Garon is working on a book about her teaching experiences, entitled Don’t Be Wilin’ Out: Teaching Lessons from the Bronx.