Monday, April 23, 2012

Only Children Have Homes

Warning: Some spoilers

The Wisconsin Film Festival is in town as part of which I watched seven films this week. Yes, seven. Yes, I am that focused. Or jobless. In any case, don't make me digress!

Wednesday, the first night of the festival, I saw a film called Monsieur Lazhar. Besides the lyrical beauty of the title (try saying it a few times), I have always been a sucker for teacher-student tales, of the right kind. Think "Mr.Holland's Opus" or "School of Rock" or the fantastic "The Class". And no, "Dead Poets' Society" is not on my list.

And so I went to see Monsieur Lazhar. Set in Montreal, the story progresses over a few months in the lives of a class of elementary school children, whose teacher commits suicide and is found hanging in the classroom by one of the students. The desperate principal hires Algerian immigrant Bachir Lazhar who shows up at school upon reading the news and volunteers his services. Over the course of the film, we see ways in which Bachir Lazhar's demons as much as the children's converge upon the ways in which systems and ideologies release subjects into their own nightmares. And this really is the crux of the film. The children are marvelously restrained actors, and the performances are unforced and remarkably poignant. They remind you of the precious and precarious time that childhood can be, where safety means a few things that leave one defenseless in their absence. The film is joyful, yet melancholic and sad, yet reassuring. It invites one to inhabit the borders where adults and children meet. The things the big peoople say, the things the small ones hear, the heartbreaking hurt on both sides and yet the mutual ability to redeem one another. Unequivocally recommended.

On a complete aside, I thought of Monsieur Lazhar again when watching this strange, strange film.

I would recommend seeing this too, just because I want to know you guys think of it. Based on and built around W.G.Sebald's "Rings of Saturn", the film attempts to both showcase and examine the author's pet themes of memory, loss, and decay. It is a melancholic explanation of melancholia. And it did manage to invoke thought long after I had left the theatre. However, one thing stood out and this is what reminded me of Monsieur Lazhar. An author attempting to explain Sebald's search for a meaningful home while walking through Suffolk strikingly brings attention to the fact that only children have a home, not adults. That sealed, controlled, hermetic, safe environment that is sufficiently amenable to our will is a product of our childhood not adulthood. And hence, children must continue to have that home. If only so that they can have something to be nostalgic about. And Lazhar has this to say about the classroom in one instance - "“A classroom is a place of friendship, of work, of courtesy, a place of life.”

And as I walked out of the various theaters I have been in this week, I could not help but be reminded that is also part of my task. I teach undergraduates, seventeen to twenty year olds with well formed personalities, far more awareness, and far less fear. It's easier. I doubt I would ever have the courage to teach schoolchildren. I find some of my greatest joy in class, in talk, in sharing. It took me a while to get here. As a graduate student, the classroom was merely a showcase for my skills and a platform upon which I strode and roared, flailing to camouflage my insecurities. I was hard on students, and even worse, harsh. As I grow older, as I read more, and attempt to write some, my insecurities have been replaced by the ability to be collectively wondrous, to share in that first moment when the class and I discover something together. Where once in a while I can strum a perfect sentence, but much more importantly, where students rearticulate my confused words and render them into something beautiful.

And I think of my own teachers and the memories they left me, and the notion of them that I hold on tight to, in the hope that the world will not decay. That maybe I will return to the kind of life where Mr.Apte taught me to draw and I tried for hours on end to render light and shadow on a vase. And discover how wonderful and new it can be to capture twilight on an object. That maybe Mrs.Akhawe who passed away far too young and far too cruelly is waiting by the fence to remind me to get back to math homework, because unlike my disbelieving self, she knew she could teach me into competence. That perhaps Victoria Jelki will know how in some other life she gave me my one true anchor, novels; by reading aloud from them in sixth grade (If you must know, it was Omen. Yes, don't ask). In that world, Mrs.Sahasrabuddhe runs through Sanskrit grammar as I listen distractedly hoping to get home in time for Remington Steele. And she patiently steers me to a 100 in the exams. Yes, a 100. And Ms.Anuradha Raman looks a vision and all the girls want to look like her and share their lunch boxes with her and of course, we are not surprised when she leaves to begin work as an air hostess. And we must of course mention Professor.A.Y.Joshi, my economics professor and Professor Anil Kulkarni, my marketing professor, who are as erudite as they look and give me something that I can aspire to, the corporeality of knowledge.

And this world is important, because in order to continue to hold onto its truth, I must work harder, feel stronger, delve deeper. And above all, I must care.