Lines of Power: Some afterthoughts on Monsieur Lazhar
By Zhang Ruihe
It has been a dramatic year in 2012 for education in Singapore. More than the usual number of scandals fuelled the fires of public speculation, and then there was the Ministry of Education's announcement of its intention to bring values back to schools – as if they had ever left. More hue and cry stirred in the media about our school system and all its attendant shortcomings, accompanied by nation-wide fretting about all the ways in which we are failing our children. And into this storm came an understated, beautifully crafted film about education that brings a sensitivity and an unusual decorum to a too easily, and too often, exploited cinematic trope – the caring teacher.
Decorum is an old-fashioned word. Certainly not a word that turns up too often in contemporary art. But it is the raw beating heart of Monsieur Lazhar (2011), a French Canadian film written and directed by Philippe Falardeau. Not just because of the aesthetic decorum that hedges in the violence and tragedy beneath the film's subdued winter quiet, but also because the questions animating the fears and desires of the teachers and students in the story are questions of decorum. What behaviour is considered proper and acceptable in a teacher's interactions with his or her students? Where are the lines drawn? Are there circumstances under which those lines can, and should even, be crossed?
The triggering event that unfolds, or explodes, at the beginning of the film – a popular teacher's unexpected suicide, staged in the grade-school classroom where she taught her young charges – is, in a sense, a breach of decorum that betrays the trust at the foundation of any teacher-student relationship. It seems callous to talk of breaches of trust when a life has been lost. And the film is compassionate towards Martine (Héléna Laliberté) – there are hints that she had been struggling with depression and she is clearly well-loved by both her colleagues and students. But a much-loved teacher who hangs herself in a classroom does not acquit herself of the impact it will have on her pupils, and indeed, the film leaves open the question of whether there was some unresolved grudge against a student motivating her choice of when and where to die.
Bachir Lazhar (Fellag), the Algerian immigrant who is hired to take over Martine's class, recognises as much, and, as an outsider personally untouched by the grief felt by the rest of the school community, is the only adult who voices these dissident thoughts. But Alice (Sophie Nélisse), one of the students who sees Martine's body when the suicide is first discovered, voices them too. In fact, she goes further, calling the suicide an act of violence, one akin to the bullying and other types of violence more commonly experienced in the schoolyard. When students are violent, they are punished, she says. Martine, however, is beyond punishment – because she is dead.
Bachir believes that a classroom should be a place of safety, of refuge, a place where children can learn and grow. It should not be a place, he says, from which one infects an entire school with one's despair. Perhaps this is too harsh. The film never divulges what exactly was troubling Martine; it does not seek to explain her despair. The school authorities speak on Martine's behalf, it is true: they tell Bachir that she deserves to be shown respect – but his rejoinder is to ask what respect she showed for her students in doing what she did. And his judgement is given added ballast because he himself has suffered deeply – his wife and children had been murdered in a fire started by insurrectionists in his native Algeria – and has possibly more right to despair than any other living character in the film. So even though there is no attempt to deliver any final verdict on the suicide, the jury seems weighed – just – against Martine.
Teaching is soul work. Cheesy, but true. It is a vocation that, if carried out well, demands a teacher's soul; and all teachers have some impact, whether for good or ill, on the souls of their students. As American author and educator Parker Palmer put it, we teach who we are. "Teaching," he writes, "like any truly human activity, emerges from one's inwardness, for better or worse… The entanglements I experience in the classroom are often no more or less than the convolutions of my inner life." A frightening thought – especially in the light of a story like Martine's. All teachers bring a bit of themselves into the classroom: their values, their worldview – even the ones who disengage are sending a message to their students, loud and clear. In the film, Bachir stands as a (flawed) foil to Martine: he reins in his personal anguish and instead allows it to nourish a compassion for his emotionally traumatised students that none of the other teachers on the staff are capable of giving.
That intimate knowledge of what it means to suffer is also what gives him his wisdom. He knows where the boundaries are in the teacher-student relationship; but he also understands that there may be times when they have to be crossed, when crossing those boundaries is in fact the only humane thing to do; and for the sake of his students he dares to cross them. Hence his refusal to speak Arabic to the Arab boy in his French class, set in contrast against his insistence on talking about Martine's death in class despite being specifically asked to leave such conversations to the psychologist hired specially by the school. In other words, he knows how to use the power invested in him as a teacher with discernment and discretion, to further the welfare of his students.
Bachir is by no means blameless. His position as substitute teacher is acquired through a breach of trust and integrity that is illegal and that will have negative repercussions that extend beyond the timeframe of the film's narrative. And Martine is shown to have been an otherwise caring teacher – in fact, it is suggested that caring too much, and being accused of overstepping the boundaries, may have contributed to her problems and eventual death. That is what I love about the film – there are no innocents; neither is anyone demonised. This is partly what makes Monsieur Lazhar so complex and subtle in its consideration of the boundaries defining what a teacher should or should not do, and a teacher's use or abuse of power. And, of course, there is more to the film than this – I do realise that I am zeroing in on just one aspect of the film while leaving everything else virtually unexplored. But it is this aspect that most intrigues me, and that haunted me, as I left the cinema.
It is deeply personal, of course. How can it be otherwise? I have always had a fraught relationship with the power that teachers wield over their students. A diary entry from when I was 10 years old: "Thought for the day – never let teachers take over you, because they're not you and you're not them." Even now, reading this more than 20 years on, I cannot help but wonder how a 10-year-old could perceive so much. Perhaps it came with a heightened, or possibly oversensitive, sense of individual autonomy, combined with an instinctive preference for preserving the peace, following the rules and keeping a low profile – contradictory impulses that sit uncomfortably in situations where an authority figure is making demands that one instinctively feels chip away at one's sense of self, one's personal psychological space. Or perhaps that 10-year-old just happened to have been high on laksa and deep-fried chicken wings from the school canteen that day. Or maybe it was just good old-fashioned paranoia. Who knows.
But whatever the roots of it, this awareness of the power relationships at work in the classroom has always informed my understanding of teaching, of education. The best teachers – the ones I know and love, whether as their student or their colleague – seem to know, instinctively, how to use that power for the good for their charges. They balance authority with gentleness, lead without imposing, even when it looks like imposing, which is what usually happens when the teacher in question has a particularly forceful or extroverted personality. The key here is that their students follow willingly, voluntarily, so that there is no real imposition involved. These teachers know where the invisible lines are, between what is permissible and what is not; they are adept at reading the environment so that they are often the first to perceive when these invisible lines have shifted. They understand decorum – when to observe it, and when it needs to be broken.
The teachers who don't do so well, however, either do not understand power, or, understanding it too well, abuse it. They either relinquish it altogether, allowing their students to control the classroom and giving up the authority they need to help their students grow, or they use it as a means to impose their will with no regard for their students' welfare. And because they handle power so badly, they find it hard to act with decorum as well.
It's interesting that this is almost never mentioned in the literature on pedagogy – at least, not in the studies that make it to the rank and file of teachers in the trenches of the public education system in Singapore. "Power" is a word I have never heard spoken in educational circles here, and it is certainly not something they talk about at a teachers' training school. Which is both understandable and regrettable. Perhaps talking about power goes against the image of the teacher as nurturer, carer, dispenser-of-good-advice and all-round Mary Poppins that the MOE seems so eager to project. But perhaps, as the film suggests in its exploration of the aftermath of Martine's death, naming something which is going to be there – whether one likes it or not – may help people see it better, and handle it better too.
Indeed, saying the dirty "P" word out loud may well be more necessary now than ever, as the traditional boundaries in teacher-student relationships become increasingly blurred, and as the balance of power shifts even more rapidly than before with increased access to digital information, social media and new communications technology. The film allows a veiled glimpse of the way the traditional balance of power between educator and educated is changing. Simon (Émilien Néron), the student who discovers Martine's body while doing his before-class milk delivery duty, is later revealed to have falsely accused Martine of being too touchy with him while giving him extra tuition after school hours. Consequently, the rest of the teachers are not allowed any physical contact at all with their students – a simple hug can be misinterpreted and used against them – which would be perfectly fine if all teachers were expected to do is to disseminate information and make sure their students learn a battery of skills and knowledge to pass their exams. But clearly that is not all that is expected of teachers – and the real teachers, the ones for whom education is a vocation, would take offence at having their responsibilities thus limited.
I remember in particular an incident from almost 10 years ago. A., a former colleague from a school that shall remain unnamed, came up to the rest of us English teachers one day, after an internal exam, bristling with indignation at something that had happened before the start of the paper. Apparently, a student had had a nervous breakdown outside the exam hall; the teacher in charge of invigilating the exam had sought out the much older and more experienced A. for advice. "What's the SOP?" she had asked. A. had turned on the poor hapless teacher – I can picture her doing it – with all her magnificent fury: "When a child has a nervous breakdown before her exam, you take that child and give her a hug and tell her she'll be alright. You do not ask about standard operating procedures."
The problem these days, of course, is that it is becoming increasingly necessary to ask about SOP. Over lunch in the school canteen last year, just after another teacher-student sex scandal had broken in the media, another of my former colleagues, a senior teacher, recounted to a group of us younger teachers how, at the beginning of his career, he used to invite his students over to his house for stay-over parties during the holidays. My father, also a teacher in the past, used to help pay the school fees on behalf of his poorer students back in the 1950s and 1960s – his former students remember it to this day. No teacher in their right mind would do such things now.
One of the reasons, of course, is that such gestures are no longer necessary. Forty years ago, going to a teacher's house for tea, or even for a stay-over, might have been a student's only contact with the world outside the cramped attap hut in the kampong where she lived. Not having enough money for school fees would probably have meant getting kicked out of school. Not anymore. There is little need now for teachers to intervene in such personal ways. There are co-curricular activities, overseas school trips, learning journeys, holiday camps (with male and female students sleeping in separate classrooms and teachers on night duty patrolling the corridors), funds that students can apply for – a whole panoply of useful and helpful officialdom designed to improve student welfare and enhance their learning experience. And by and large, these are Good Things – few would argue against them in and of themselves.
But there is a sadder reason too. The lines designating the professional limits of what teachers are expected or allowed to do have hardened in recent years as breaches of the old rules of decorum have been given more and more airtime by the media. It's anyone's guess whether the increase in the number of publicised cases of inappropriate sexual relationships between teachers and students, for example, reflects an actual rise in numbers, or simply a greater willingness to report such incidents. Whatever the case, though, the result has been an erosion of public trust in the teaching profession; the default tends towards suspicion and scepticism, and people are generally less willing to give the benefit of the doubt than they used to be.
Teaching has never been easy. But I think the issues surrounding the question of what it means to be a good teacher have become more complex than ever before in recent years. There have always been lines and boundaries; now there are lines within lines, boundaries nested within more boundaries, and the problem is that these are now constantly shifting, so that the temptation for many well-meaning yet wary teachers is to play it safe, retreat behind the lines that define the narrowest space, put more distance between themselves and their students. But this is not how soul work should be done, or can be done. If it is true that teachers have to earn the trust that is invested in them by using well the power that they hold, it is equally true that trust needs to be given. How that exchange will be negotiated in the years to come, like the fate of Bachir's students after he is divested of his teaching position in the film, remains open to question.QLRS Vol. 12 No. 1 Jan 2013