The Classroom in Cinema

It's a strange thing, as a teacher, to have time on your hands, but it so happened that during a recent free period, I had nothing to grade, plan or print. So I reached for the huge stack of educational articles I have been meaning to wade through all year. At the top of the pile was the annual AATF review, including articles in both French and English. I flipped through it at random and became engrossed in a piece about a recent Quebecois film, Monsieur Lazhar, about an Algerian emigre who fills in as a substitute teacher. Although the article concerned the use of formal and informal address between teachers, colleagues and students, I found myself so interested in the characters that I sat down that night and watched it.

Later, as credits rolled up the screen and tears rolled down my face, I thought about how many dozens of movies I had seen about teachers. Some have been good and some very, very bad. Just for fun, I made a list. 

Good: these movies are not only realistic in their depictions of classroom struggles, but they are also inspiring and uplifting -- even when they're tragic. 

  • Butterfly: Although the politics of the era in which it's set (the Spanish Civil War) heavily influence this movie, it remains for me a story about the profound wonder that makes education so beautiful and necessary.
  • Dead Poets Society: I still remember sitting in shocked silence with my best friend in high school after having watched this movie. It had such an effect on us, especially because of our interest in the arts. Robin Williams manages a completely, disarmingly honest portrayal.
  • Monsieur Lazhar: As a fairly strict teacher myself, I appreciated Lazhar's high expectations of his students (he has them practice dictation from Balzac on the very first day; they're in the third grade.) Of course, they come to appreciate his desire to see greatness in them, just as he comes to appreciate their forthright affection.
  • The School of Rock: This may seem an odd choice, but Jack Black is completely convincing as an awful substitute teacher whose students end up teaching him how to educate them. It's also a fantastic, if unrealistic, advertisement for project-based learning!
  • The Wave: Based on a novella I read in grade school, this German film examines the sobering possibility that a new Nazi Party is just one ideologue away. The teacher who starts the experiment, although he fails in many ways, gives his students an invaluable lesson in the sinister power of solidarity.
  • To Be and To Have: In a tiny town in rural France, a one-room schoolhouse is about to shut down. Modern amenities notwithstanding, I could have been watching a dramatization of Little House on the Prairie. It was inspiring to watch education unfold the old-fashioned way.

Bad: don't waste your time here; these are the same tired Chicken Soup for the Soul cliches you've already heard too often.

  • Akeelah and the Bee: The main character was really adorable, and Laurence Fishburne cannot turn in a bad performance, but it was just too trite to enjoy.
  • Children of a Lesser God: I had such high hopes for this film about a hearing teacher at a school for the Deaf, but again, I felt it was trite, especially the affair between the professor and student. (Sorry for the spoiler. No, not really. Now you don't have to watch it.)
  • Freedom Writers: I am making it a personal goal to warn lovers of this movie and / or book that it's NOT ALL TRUE. Students in her class did keep journals, but they edited them as a group, placing emphasis on powerful writing rather than truth. I will never understand what makes people desire to blend fact and fiction. Also, Hillary Swank just comes off as insincere: um, what happened to that husband she moved to LA with?!
  • Mr. Holland's Opus: Could Richard Dreyfus ever be a teacher? No. The end.
  • To Sir, With Love: My cousin and I watched this with our moms when we were young. I actually liked it right up until the end when one of the characters sings an ORIGINAL SONG by the same title as the movie. I'm feeling sick just remembering that awful moment.
  • Good Will Hunting: Robin Williams is a caricature of himself in this movie. Not to mention, the distillation of an entire profession into one simple, repeated question that magically causes an emotional breakthrough?! (I think this is a real improvement.)

Unqualified: although these are not movies about teachers in the classroom, they are compelling enough that you should watch them anyway!

  • Lean on Me: There are plenty of cliches here, too, but Morgan Freeman has enough memorable lines to redeem it, and I'm partial to the true-to-life story that's close to my church home. Bonus: the faculty meeting that ends with the kind of verbal dressing-down most teachers dream of delivering.
  • Waiting for Superman: The only movie that ever inspired two blog posts, it is more about the educational system than education itself -- but still, everyone should watch it, because if you think you're not a part of that system in some way, you're dead wrong. 
  • Spellbound: This movie is actually a complex character study cleverly disguised as a documentary. The only downside is the knowledge that, out of eight charming children, only one will win the National Spelling Bee -- and truly, you are rooting for them all.
  • The King's Speech: Out on a technicality, because an SLP is not the same as a classroom teacher, the recent Best Picture is one of the few winners that actually deserved that honor. Geoffrey Rush is transcendent, and Colin Firth is maybe even more attractive with a speech impediment than as his normal brooding self.
  • The Life of David Gale: A bold political statement about capital punishment, this sleeper is only tangentially about a wrongfully-accused college professor. Kevin Spacey doing his in-your-face Kevin Spacey thing, and Kate Winslet being the luminous, visceral presence she always is, makes the film riveting to the last moment.
  • Rushmore: I am sorry I waited so long to see this movie about a bizarre love triangle between two teachers and a student. I thought I wouldn't like it. I was so wrong; in fact, it opened the floodgates to a long, torrid affair with Wes Anderson's work. Bill Murray is inimitable. Jason Schwartzman redefines precocious. Be ye not so foolish: watch it now!

Six Ways to Sunday

Every day these little vignettes pass me by, when Sunday's peace seems a distant memory and I'm just trying to make it through another week. But now that I have a five-day weekend to reflect (thank you, late winter storm!) I find them coming back to me, making me smile all over again.

  1. We've just finished learning venir, to come, and bid goodbye to the early-dismissal track star; as she leaves, I explain to the class that revenir, to come back, is conjugated the same way. "So if you want to ask someone to come ba--," and inspiration cuts me off. I stride to the doorway and shout, "REVIENS!" She halts, bewildered, and the class dissolves in laughter. Meanwhile, the students in the hall get a sneak preview of my new advertising campaign for the French program.
  2. My favorite lesson of the whole year happens to be the day of my annual observation. I guide the class in the rhythmic tapping of iambic pentameter, the beating of the heart through the poet's words. Da-DUM. Da-DUM. Da-DUM. Now cracks a noble heart. Goodnight, sweet prince! Oh no, it is an ever-fixed mark. Titania waked and straightway loved an ass. Hyperbole, metaphor, double entendre. Richly-laden lines twist over and around them until their own are pouring forth: Australia is a lovely place to be.  My doggie loves to play and roll in snow. Morning coffee suddenly sounds poetic, and sunburned afternoons call to them from future summers. When the bell rings, my department chair apologizes for staying through the whole period: "I just didn't want to leave."
  3. Midway through a quiz, a student decides to reword a sentence and spends a good three minutes crossing it out. Her laborious scraping of pen on paper is finally interrupted with the clean smack of a whiteout pen on her desk, delivered with silent reproach by her neighbor who doesn't even look up from her own work. I can't help but laugh: that girl will make a great mom someday.
  4. During a "free" period as I'm hustling through the next batch of papers, I comment on one: "When I die, I want you to write my obituary." I am completely serious. If she can make a paper about Salinger sound as fresh and hopeful as he wasn't, I imagine she could do a lot for my posthumous public image. 
  5. Two separate parents, within a week of each other, thanked me for being hard on their children. "This is part of growing up," one said. "She needs to take responsibility for her actions," said another. My faith in modern parenting ceased its precipitous freefall and actually took a few halting, hopeful steps back toward the light.
  6. In the stairwell, as students jostle each other to get to break and I attempt to keep out of the way, I spot one who is particularly pained by the tangle of backpacks and ponytails. "This is SO not ideal," she huffs. I suppress a smile, but as I consider her words over the next few days, I realize it's a perfect thesis statement for my life. Maybe for yours, too.

Ma Merveille

Years ago, I saw The New World on the recommendation of a friend. Here's a taste:

It was my first Malick film, and as much as I was awed by its external transcendence, its deeper substance really burrowed into me. I rented it, watched it, went to bed, and when I arose the next morning after a mostly-sleepless night, sat down to watch the whole thing again. I have tried to write about it, but could hardly even think about it except in waves of images and isolated thoughts, never coherent enough to string together. Though this is grossly over-simplistic, I will say that it is a story about hurt and healing. Healing triumphs, but in a devastatingly pyrrhic victory -- old wounds remain latent, sabotaging the future with poison from the past. Watching it uncovered deep layers of unsettled feelings, pain I had either forgotten or chosen to ignore.

I always come late to the most interesting conversations, especially where my friend Rod is concerned -- he who can create a niche market, document a paradigm shift and defend a worldview in the time it takes me to have one slightly original thought. But, in light of the above experience, I am finding the need to add to the dialogue of his recent musings (starting here, and continuing here and here) about Malick's latest film. To the Wonder.

I watched this one alone on a whim, and I liked it; especially the priest, who is the central character regardless of screentime. It didn't have the same effect right away. Some days later, I discovered my whole family was miffed at me because they had wanted to see it too. So we watched it together, and after the second viewing, we all started to think and talk about it -- a conversation that continued for several weeks. 

There is literally no way I can spoil the plot, because there is no plot, other than the general arc of a couple who falls in love in Paris and then tries to make their relationship last back in the United States. The ending is ambiguous and has already provoked several arguments. But this movie is not about the plot; it's about the details. There are three I keep coming back to.

Kinesis: as The Times reviewer mentioned, the female lead is constantly in motion. She spins, chases, flings her arms wide to embrace the heavens, all to an introspective French voiceover that sounds as italic as its subtitles look. She is lovely, and Malick's camerawork is masterful; every shot is frameable, every scene a living poem. It's surprising, then, that it rings so hollow. My mother pointed out that all the leaping and tumbling left the characters with nothing solid to hold on to -- searching for ground, they came up with only air. (Their house, which remains huge and unfurnished, is another indicator of their empty lives.)

Nature: like every other Malick film, this one shows a profound respect for, and unabashed adoration of, the natural world. Trees, beaches, gardens and fields all get the same breathless reverence. But this time, there is more: through the story of a priest who struggles with eternal questions, Malick shows us that even his own masterpieces are worthless to the extent that they don't acknowledge their ultimate creator. The tongues of men and angels, which few would argue he has mastered on film, are merely noise next to a heart of faith and a hand of mercy.

Place: A picture is worth a thousand words, and there are thousands of pictures in a film, so it stands to reason that there should be very little explanation necessary. Mercifully, Malick lets his shots speak for themselves. America is sun-kissed grass, Paris rain-dampened cobblestone. The Sonic drive-in glows just as the shimmering beaches of Mont-Saint-Michel do -- one wholesome, one exotic, both glorious. I was actually a little disappointed when I realized that La Merveille, The Wonder, is a physical place; I had first read that line as a metaphysical statement, about the power of love to transform a quotidian hour into an ethereal one.

It's this last idea that has stuck with me most since I saw the film. Without even meaning to, I often imagine my own life as Terrence Malick might see it. Entering my hushed classroom in the early morning, slowly raising the shades and looking out to the glorious fog-drenched expanse of trees below. Scattering grain to a feathery patchwork of black and gold. Standing in a darkened church, sweet harmony mingling with the dissonant cries of children. Entering the pantry to the pillowy-sweet scent of fresh apples, letting them cook in butter until the sugar runs a sticky amber. Climbing between clean, soft flannel sheets and yielding to the stillness of sleep.

Each day is full of moments like this. Sometimes I see them, and just as often I let them slip by unnoticed. But thanks to the magic of my own personal merveille, awakened by this lovely film, they are always there.

Une Vie Francaise

A month ago I lost my driver's license at a concert. (They actually didn't ID us that night, and to add insult to irony, it was a lousy show.)

I hate the MVA so much that I put off getting a new one, going so far as to carry my passport on a recent domestic flight. But last week I remembered there was an express office in Columbia that's open on Saturdays. So I rounded up the following forms of ID as per their website:

  • Passport (proof of identity)
  • Name Change Order (my passport only displays first and last) 
  • Credit Card Bill (proof of residency)
  • Pay Stub (proof of SSN, but mine only displays the last 4 digits) 
  • Recent Employment Contract (proof of full SSN)

So, guess how many she looked at?

Zero. She asked for my name, then my SSN, pulled up the file, took my picture and sent me on my way. But not before she asked about my middle name, which gave me such trouble at the MVA when I first changed it. I told her it was Armenian, then couldn't resist adding that her name meant "sing" in French. She was tickled by this and wanted to know how I had learned French. I told her high school plus practice, and she seemed genuinely interested and impressed that it was part of my daily life.

After that, I stopped for breakfast at La Madeleine, where the cafe is strong and the croissants can be found as God intended them (toasted almonds outside and marzipan within.) The staff is all Francophone, but diverse, and they are happy to chat with you a bit while you wait to enjoy your meal close to the fire.

Speaking French is occasionally useful, as at the concert (this one was amazing) when I calmly directed some confused patrons to their seats in their native language, or the time I watched a movie at a theater where the subtitles weren't working. It also brings me grief, mostly in the form of sarcastic comments from friends and family who wish they could understand me. But mostly it is a joy -- anytime I think, speak or dream in French, my life seems a little bit sweeter. 

Paris Top 10: Walking

What will you find when you go on a walk in Paris? 


An interplay of light and shadow in an airy hall, far more interesting than the dubiously-titled art on its walls; and the company of a beloved sister, far more valuable.


The source of a favorite album. A riff on a favorite cocktail. 


A daydream about snapping winds and foamy seas, wrought in thin spires of bronzed fancy. 


Tiny explosions of color and chlorophyll, waiting to beautify a room or a corner or just a passing glance.


A temple to a man that accidentally, in dizzying golden heights and shafts of warm piercing sunshine, honors God instead.


A place that begs questioning, if only you were brave enough to stop for the answer.


A new friend: adoring, persistent and soft around the edges.


A gateway into another place, another time. 


A bracing remedy for whatever ails you.


A symphony of pattern, texture and composition that welcomes you with glass drums and trumpets of steel and, with soft undulating wood-paneled woodwinds, begs you to return and explore it again: on foot, as it was meant to be seen.

You will. 

Paris Top 10: Parks

Freshly returned from Paris, I'm determined to finish this series once and for all! 


Paris and parks are so synonymous, they're practically the same word. Everywhere you turn there are carefully trimmed and planted arcades of trees, windowboxes and street urns spilling over with flowery vines, sculpted topiaries and manicured lawns. But truthfully, none of these things guarantees a park. There are some rules. 

Rule Number One: Parks must be free. Parisians think it ludicrous to pay for basic human rights such as breathing, talking and relaxing in nature. I have to say I admire their attitude and have started voting "yes" on any question of public green spaces in my community, borderline libertarian though I am.

Interestingly, although the chateaux of the Loire valley (including those close to Paris, such as Versailles and Fontainebleau) all require admission fees to the house and gardens, there is always a public park that adjoins them, often so seamlessly you don't even notice the ticket checkpoint. This is good to know for anyone who isn't as fond of tapestries and topiaries as the rest of his group.

Rule Number Two: There must be a place to sit down -- preferably, to lie down. Parisians routinely travel with blankets, shawls, and something appropriate for an impromptu picnic -- fruit, cheese, wine, all of the above. Good conversation can only take place when both parties are comfortable, and what's more comfortable than stretching out with grass between your toes? 

This past trip I flew directly from a conference to meet Rob and the rest of the group in Paris. After a seven-hour flight and another hour in the taxi, I dropped my things at the hotel, showered quickly, grabbed a croissant and led the group on another two-hour metro-train-bus-foot marathon to Chateau Fontainebleau. Once the students were safely inside, I told Rob I had to go lie down for awhile, and headed for the park. I found a stone bench in the shade and fell fast asleep.

About an hour later I awoke to the sound of sharp scolding. Breathless, I sat up, afraid I had transgressed some local ordinance, but the two park employees were only scolding a group of tourists for feeding the ducks. When they saw my wild eyes (and wilder hair, I'm sure) they waved me off. "Vouz pouvez dormir, madame," one assured me, and "La sieste, c'est autorisee," the other agreed. Naps are authorized. Good to know. 

Rule Number Three: There must be some form of water present.  A pool, a canal, a fountain, a lake -- anything that allows the play of light to dazzle the eyes, the rushing music to quiet the mind, a slightly cooler temperature to moisten the skin. Without water, grass is just a lawn, but alongside water, grass becomes a playground, a cushion, a studio. Water is vital to the park-ness of a park.

When my sister was traveling in Europe, she made plans to meet a friend in Italy: "At ten o'clock by the FOUNTAIN. How amazing is that?!" And truly, fountains and ruins and carefully pruned hedges and exuberant, overflowing gardens are all just part of life there.  Our aesthetic is a little coarser on this side of the Atlantic, where civilization is a newer idea. After hearing my sister's story, I tried to imagine where I would meet a friend who was coming to my town. The post office? The coffee shop? No central design feature stood out. That struck me as sad.


When I started writing, I was sure there were more rules. But I think this is it. Children are welcome, of course, and parks are one place where they can run and scream with abandon -- but some parks are quiet, and that's okay. Likewise with dogs, with workout clothing (though you see blessed few of this in France, as opposed to here where a leisurely stroll is often impossible between all the huffing and whirring around you.) 

It's a simple thing, really. A place to sit and think, catch some fresh air, clear your head. We like them in America, but to the French, parks are non-negotiable. 


Posts in the Paris Top 10 Series:

  1. Wait and see . . .  
  2. Wait and see . . .  
  3. Parks
  4. Music
  5. Museums
  6.  Fine Dining
  7. Conversation 
  8.  Churches
  9. Chateaus
  10. Cafes


I Speak American

"Why are there two words for 'friend,' ami and copain?"

It's Friday, and I'm feeling ornery. "I don't know. Why do the Alaskans have eight different words for snow?"

"They have eight different words for snow? What are they?"

"I don't know. I don't speak Aleut."

"People in Alaska DON'T SPEAK ENGLISH?!" A general outcry, which quickly disintegrates into multiple animated dialogues. "So Eskimos aren't American?" "I thought that was illegal!" "What about Sarah Palin?"

This is beyond the scope of my job description, I think as I draw a crude map of North America on the board and prepare to explain the relative size of Alaska, our reasons for acquiring it and a history of the people who lived there long before our ancestors made the treacherous journey across the Atlantic. 

But here I go anyway.