Friday, June 27, 2008

Pocket Money 2 -- School

Thiers, France, built on the hill.

In the scene for the opening credits in Pocket Money, we see children tumbling down the streets of Thiers, a town built on the hills where all the streets run up and down. They are carrying satchels and running to school--a no-nonsense place. The schoolyard is bare--no swings, no monkey bars, no sliding boards. Inside the classroom, the scene is equally barren--a few maps, but no decoration in the classroom or the hallways. The chalkboard and desks. There are about 25 children at least in the classroom--in this case, it is an all-boys school which is to go co-ed in the next year.

In the front of the classroom is a young teacher, slim and as no-nonsense as the surroundings. No friendly introductions, right down to business. She listens to boys recite from The Miser by Moliere (as homework the boys had been tasked with memorizing 15 lines). Those who do not know it are sharply rebuked. Equally rebuked are those who say the lines without appropriate emotional expression. The teacher reads it as an example and calls on another boy. When he still recites in the lines in monotone, she yells, "I am as stubborn as you are. I don't care if it takes all day." In another scene she quizzes the boys on history: she says a year and a place, and she calls on a boy who must reply with the event that happened in that year and place. In yet a third scene, she is teaching punctuation by examining a poem.

Compared with today's teaching methods in the United States, the onus is on memorization--that is, internalization of the material. The onus is also on the students to learn, not on the teacher to give them a meaningful or happy experience.

A French classroom, a photo taken by the teacher and on his blog.

Yet if the teacher seems abrupt by American standards, she cares deeply for her students. When it emerges that one of the boys, a small-time delinquent, is regularly beaten at home when signs of abuse, including cigarette burns, are discovered, she bursts into tears and feels terribly guilty that she had not noticed and had been "hard on him."

A male teacher who figures prominently in the movie is a bit more free-wheeling and encourages greater participation from the students. We hear fragments of his geography class--clearly French children know where France is, but they are expected to know many more details about the planet. Here again, the focus is on memorizing the lesson. There are scenes in which children are helping each other with their homework after school--quizzing each other on the memorization or helping each other with math.

School goes all day, from early in the morning until 4:30 in the afternoon. A friend of mine who lived in France notes that children are sent to daycare before school, whether the mother stays at home or not. Kindergarten is all day.

Harriet Welty Rochefort, an American who married a French man and lives in Paris, noted in her book, French Toast: An American in Paris Celebrates the Maddening Mysteries of the French, that she left her son off at school by saying, "Have fun" but that French mothers left their children with the words, "Be good." Although American, I always have said, "Be good," when my daughter and I part, so this may be a measure of France's resistance to 1960s countercultural feel-good-ism, which the author seemed often to represent.

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