January 26, 2004
Georges Lopez says his goodbyes

On Saturday evening BBC4 TV showed Etre et Avoir, Nicolas Philibert's documentary about Georges Lopez, the French teacher in a primary school in the farming country of the Auvergne. It has been a huge surprise hit in France and is now being given award nominations and awards over here, and you can entirely see why.

There was one of him and about twelve of them. The children all got to know him well, he got to know all of the children well, and we got to know all of them, him and the children.

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If there is to be orthodox, compulsory education, then this is clearly the kind of thing it ought to consist of. Georges Lopez was firm, fair, kind, attentive, and clearly loved his charges in just the way that you would want a teacher to do. He taught the 3Rs with care and certainty. He socialised with them and taught them manners, and was never himself anything but polite and respectful. He took them on trips in the surrounding countryside.

When one of the boys was distraught about his father's severe health problems, there was Georges, talking him through it, offering salient philosophical advice and comfort. ("We try to stay healthy, but then illness comes, and we must cope with it.")

I tried to sustain all my usual objections to educational compulsion, which this most definitely was despite the kind and considerate manner in which it was being administered, but honestly, I couldn't sustain them. Given the alternatives offered by their actually existing environment, this was the best deal that these children were going to get, by far. I couldn't blame Georges for the rules of his culture and the times he lived in. He was doing his best, and his best was very, very good.

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There was one rather scatter-brained and mischief minded little kid with a splendidly photogenic face (he is now a celebrity, you can bet) called Jojo, who wasn't naturally bookish or logical, more your imaginative, romantic type. There was a lovely scene where Georges got Jojo to understand that there was no limit to how high numbers can go. ("Can you have more than one hundred? Can you have two hundred? What about three hundred? A thousand? Two thousand? Three thousand, … ten thousand, twenty thousand, … a million, two million, three million?" Jojo dutifully supplied the answer that Georges was looking for, which was "Yes you can", but was rather bored by it all, and would clearly have preferred to be talking about the interesting little human drama that was happening over the other side of the room. And eventually, George did defer and switched to talking about that drama. But not before he had stretched Jojo's brain like a piece of chewing gum. And of course, in the final scene, when they were all saying goodbye, Jojo was among those most sorry to be leaving. He loved Georges more than almost any of them. At least Georges, although firm with him, was also kind and gentle. I bet lots of others weren't nearly so patient when they were telling Jojo what to do.

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The other scene that stuck in my mind was when another kid was filmed doing his homework, surrounded by his entire family. Mum, Dad, a brother, and an uncle I think it was. On and on it went, with Dad in particular sweating away at the mysteries of higher arithmetic. The camera stayed absolutely still. It looked like a Rembrandt. Boy and family doing homework. Beautiful.

A particularly pro-French thought. When they were all saying their final goodbyes, they all said goodbye with the ceremonial three-times-over left-right-left French kisses, boys and girls alike. My own bit of culture contains no such ceremonial interchange. This one was peculiarly appropriate for this particular moment, and very flexible. It could be distant and correct, like getting a medal from the President, or affectionate, as between members of a family. You could see Georges adapting the atmosphere to suit each child, with the last boy being particularly formal and distant. ("Au revoir Monsieur!")

There was one girl to whom Georges made a point of not saying a final goodbye. She was due to go to another much, much bigger school, and she was distraught. She was seriously bad at communicating, with anyone, but was just about okay with Georges and the small classroom with its small number of other children. She sat with Georges, rocking with repetitious grief and fear at the horrors to come. Georges did most of the talking, combining firmness and gentle concern as best he could, expressing confidence, while offering the poor girl the chance to come and visit Georges and tell him how she was doing. Okay? "Oui."

With a little bit of luck, it helped. And quite possibly this talk made all the difference to her entire life to come. It wouldn't surprise me.

Georges himself is (and I guess it's was by now) to say goodbye to teaching soon after this film was in the can, and when he told his kids about that they were not best pleased. A lot of the appeal of this film is the feeling you have while watching it that this is a fast vanishing world. This kind of kindness, politeness and personal attention may soon be a thing of the past.

After the film was so successful, there was then a huge row about how much of the money that the film so unexpectedly made ought to go to Georges Lopez himself. A lot, was Georges' opinion. I don't know how that all finished, but in any case that's a different story.

I'm glad about the pictures decision. I can feel it working already.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:24 PM
Category: How to teachPrimary schools