Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Classroom Discipline

My, how times have changed. When I was a kid, discipline was never an issue in the classroom. Faced with stern elementary school teachers (some of whom looked like aging Irish spinsters in Kate Smith dresses), one never even dared to misbehave. 

When I got to junior high, my home room teacher was a mammoth woman with a foggy contralto that would have been the envy of anyone casting a Gilbert & Sullivan operetta.  Whenever she lifted her substantial pulchritude onto the corner of her desk, waves of fear raced through the classroom as students expected to be hit with flying debris as soon as the desk collapsed under her massive weight. 

I still have memories of Loretta Mullaly's gigantic hulk making its way through the school corridors as students hugged the wall in fear of being crushed to death.  All she needed to say was four words:

"Out. Of. My. Way.

No one ever dared to challenge her.

My father, a high school science teacher at Brooklyn's Midwood High School (which I also attended as a student) retired a few months before the school's first onsite stabbing. He never looked back. Perhaps that's why I was curious about a French film written by Francois Begaudeau and directed by Laurent Cantet (who won the 2008 Golden Palm Award at Cannes) entitled Entre Les Murs (The Class), which is scheduled to hit theaters in January.

A gifted novelist who used his own experiences as a classroom teacher to craft the film's screenplay, Begaudeau portrays a tireless and devoted educator who tries to keep some level of respect alive between students and teacher during his French-language classes in a tough Parisian high school. Facing off against a group of disaffected teenagers chock full of attitude, short on discipline, and eager to push back against authority, Begaudeau must also struggle with the harsh realities of France's multicultural population. 

Obvious sports-related tensions exist between the black male students, whose favorite teams may represent Morocco, the Ivory Coast or France.  There is a humble, intelligent and highly-motivated Chinese student (Wei) whose mother faces deportation after having been arrested for being in the country illegally. 

A disruptive, underachieving black student named Soulayman eventually gets expelled with the class's knowledge that, as punishment, his father may send the boy back to their native village in Mali.  Then there are issues about language: who can use which words without insulting another classmate (not to mention the retaliation that ensues when the teacher, as he clumsily tries to make a point about grammar, uses the French equivalent of  "skank"in front of two teenage girls). 

Begaudeau is hardly alone in his struggles. We see him in the teachers' lounge, at staff conferences, and at parent-teacher meetings trying to keep students inspired, keep their parents involved, and make it to the end of the school year (although physically, spiritually and emotionally exhausted) in one piece. 

The Class is most notable for the skill with which its creators have coerced its mostly non-actor cast into solid improvisations based on classroom incidents. Spoken almost entirely in French (with subtitles in English) it is a shockingly honest and unsentimental depicition of the classroom dynamic with all of its inherent frustrations.  If you remember the old commercials which asked "Is it real or is it Memorex?" you'll find yourself having similar doubts while watching this film and wondering "Is this fiction or a documentary?"

Until I saw two heartbreaking pieces at the 33rd Annual American Indian Film Festival, I was unaware of the tragic scandals involving the phenomenon of Indian Residence Boarding Schools in the United States. Supremely misguided efforts by American educators insisted on removing many Indian children from their families -- sometimes for periods of 10 years at a time -- and sending them off to boarding schools where the basic goal was to beat the Indian out of them.   

By eliminating any references to native culture and the use of Aboriginal language, educators (often Catholic priests and nuns) stuck to a simple guideline:  "Kill the Indian, save the man."
Unfortunately, many generations of Indian families were sent to these schools. 

Filmmaker Tessa Desnomie belonged to one such family (whose children suffered mightily at the hands of sadistic Catholic nuns employed at the Lebret school). Desnomie's short documentary, It Had To Be Done, relates how two women (her aunt Anita and Anita's close friend Doris), helped to put an end to some of the school's abusive practices.  

Anita and Doris had been devoted friends as children.  After graduating from Lebret and starting to raise their own families, they were subsequently employed by the school.  One of the women recalls how, as an adult working in the kitchen, she finally got up the courage to buck a nun's orders to serve children bologna that had turned green with mold.  A powerful part of the film is the use of artwork depicting a child's terrified impression of a nun as an angry, vicious, threatening and ghoulish creature -- the embodiment of enough malice and evil to scare the crap out of anyone.

A more thorough look at the cultural problems created by this perverse approach to cultural brainwashing can be seen in Chip Richie's 80-minute feature, Our Spirits Don't Speak English: Indian Boarding School.  Guaranteed to bring tears to your eyes, this heartrending documentary uses plenty of fascinating archival footage -- mixed with testimonials from older Native Americans who survived the humiliation, abuse, and brutal degradation of the boarding school experience -- to describe how the American government tried to destroy Indian culture, demolish the family unit, and obliterate tribal unity.  

You can order DVDs of several documentaries that depict America's history from the Native American point of view (including The Trail of Tears: Cherokee Legacy,  Black Indians: An American Story,  and How To Trace Your Native American Heritage ) from Rich-Heape Films.  What you will discover in these films is a far cry from what you learned while playing "Cowboys and Indians" in your youth.

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