This is my review of Entre les murs (Collection Folio (Gallimard)) by Francois Begaudeau.
François Bégaudeau’s portrayal of a young teacher’s struggle to teach French to a multi-ethnic class of fourteen-year-olds in a tough Parisian suburb was made into a Palme d’Or-winning film. I found the film more effective, in that the teenage pupils who improvised their role for weeks to get into their parts are very convincing, while the inspired director Laurent Cantet manages to select characters and scenes from the book to create a much stronger narrative than the original.
In a succession of short scenes over the course of a school year, Bégaudeau’s book uses continual repetition to create a surreal, groundhog day sense of the claustrophobic world of teaching: in the staffroom, Bastien forever eats dry cake, and the rest spend their time cadging change for the defective coffee machine, asking how to produce double-sided sheets on the erratic photocopier, and despairing over their classes in Pinteresque conversations. As for the class, Souleymane persists in coming to each lesson with his hood over his hat, the disaffected Dico keeps pestering for a transfer to another class, and Bégaudeau’s attempt to teach his pupils arcane points of grammar, as prescribed by the state, or the rather more useful ability to reason, are scuppered by their ignorance of basic vocabulary. Yet, they can be remarkably perceptive at times, and their constant complaint to Bégaudeau, “Vous charriez trop” seems justified in some ways. Although he clearly wants to teach them to think, and has a soft spot for the more cooperative students and the bright, extrovert dynamo Sandra, the system is against him. “I slept badly” is a cue for an outburst of sarcasm or worse on his part, as when he calls students “imbeciles” or accuses girls of “having the attitude of a slut”. At times, he loses all dignity in a slanging match verging on violence with the insolent Dico who get under his skin, for whom he regularly abandons his class to drag the youth before the Principal – a well-intentioned but ineffectual man who reminds me of President Hollande.
In this tragi-comedy, the teachers resemble the pupils too closely: with the three rings in one ear and tee-shirts with motifs of fire-breathing dragons and unicorns, is Leopold clearly distinguishable from a student? Also, the staff express themselves in such a slangy, colloquial way that one wonders how the students can ever learn good practice.
The book is hard for a non-French reader because of all the “argot” and unfamiliar practices but made me curious as to the contrasts with British secondary education. The French system seems much more complicated, yet alarmingly democratic in, for instance, having student representatives at certain review meetings such as “le conseil de classe”. Since many of the scenes are very funny, one can read this purely as a tragi-comic farce, but underlying it all is the dilemma of how to teach a diverse group effectively, as implied by the twenty-two probing questions on best practice which form one chapter.