To Be and To Have

14 May 2004

Paul R. Potts

On a whim, I picked this film out from a brief capsule review, having heard almost nothing about it, and took my wife and son. She’s a Francophile, and we’re home-schooling our son, so I thought a documentary about a tiny French school might be interesting.

I was right. Isaac complained about boredom during the movie, but I think it gave him some him material to think through later, and he still remembers the students. Grace was fascinated. What is amazing here isn’t any particularly gripping interpersonal drama or angst, but the way the camera lingers so effectively on the faces of its subjects. There are no actors here. Structured only by time and simple editing, we get almost painfully real glimpses of the lives of a dedicated, middle-aged male teacher and his students, most of whome seem to come from farming families somewhere in rural France.

We see a teacher of almost infinite patience, Georges Lopez, working with calm dedication to provide each student not with short-term gratification but with what the student needs. Lopez by turns teaches a whole range of ages in one classroom, covering coloring, handwriting, cooking, writing, and math. We get to see the aftermath of a playground fight, a couple of parent-teacher conferences, and an inadvertently funny scene in which a child’s entire extended family winds up trying to help him slog through a difficult multiplication problem. Any adult trying to help a grade-school student with long- since-forgotten long division will surely laugh out loud in sympathy.

Beyond teaching, we see Lopez as counselor, confidante, and friend. It is fashionable to believe in the U.S. that a teacher can be effective while maintaining complete “professionalism” and emotional separation from his or her charges. What emerges here is a different kind of professionalism; he counsels a boy whose father has cancer, and a painfully introverted girl. When the students leave for the summer, they each give and receive kisses on the cheek. Some are crying; they will miss him, and he will miss them. I miss all of them already; it was was a privilege to be able to pretend that I was briefly part of their lives.

Unfortunately, it will probably be hard to catch this film on the big screen; the theater was empty. It was the opening night of Van Helsing and the only other people watching had probably picked it as a second choice after being unable to get tickets to that splatter-fest; as we left, we heard them muttering a refund. I left feeling saddened by both what has become of both American teaching and by the ruins of our national attention span.

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