Laurent Cantet’s film presents the struggle between a teacher, Mr. Marin, and his class of students from various cultures. It reminded me of several “Newcomers” classes that I’ve taught, although my students were better behaved. Still, Mr. Marin has it rather easy. His students are teenagers who are beginning to assert their independence, but they hardly qualify as unruly. There are no papers or pencils in flight, and certainly no chairs or desks being flung. Mr. Marin should try teaching in a public school system in an economically depressed area of the United States.
He has to contend with some smart-mouthed comments and a question about his sexuality (the mention of homosexuality makes the students giggle) and some kids who resist instruction, but he doesn’t have to maneuver his way through an encounter with a switchblade-flinging Vic Morrow as Glenn Ford’s teacher did in 1955’s The Blackboard Jungle, nor does he have to attend a dance in which his students wiggle their butts to the music of the Mindbenders as Sidney Poitier did in 1967’s To Sir, With Love.
His biggest challenge comes when he tells a couple of girls that they acted like “skanks” when representing their class at a faculty meeting. This leads to his being accused of having called them “skanks” (well, he did). A boy whose poor behavior was discussed at the meeting and led to the “skank” charge threatens to kick Mr. Marin’s ass before leaving the room, accidentally hitting a girl in the eye with his bookbag as he departs. I’d be surprised if that doesn’t happen every day in the average U.S. school, you know, when there isn’t a gang fight in the hallway that makes Mr. Marin’s troubles appear trivial.
For the most part, his students are pretty decent when you overlook the tendency to boorishness that typifies adolescence. Even the girl who giggles, chews gum, and nibbles biscuits at the faculty meeting shows herself to be rather studious and serious when reading her “Self Portrait” to the class.
“I’d like to be a policewoman,” she says, “because people say all policemen are bad, and so we need good ones.” Failing that, she’d want to be a rapper.
Wei, a Chinese kid, confesses that he struggles with French which is why he doesn’t communicate much. He also stays home because he’s allergic to something “but I don’t know what.” Mr. Marin congratulates Wei on a self portrait that accomplishes the goal of such an assignment. “I feel that I know you better.” Some other students are reluctant to read theirs, claiming the teacher won’t like it. They want praise, of course, and attention, which they may not get at home. That’s kids for you.
Some things are universal. The Diary of Anne Frank is read in the U.S. schools, and the kids in The Class read it, too.
Brian W. Fairbanks
© 2010 Brian W. Fairbanks