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The Personal Touch 

The University of New Orleans, where I have taught writing for the past 25 years, has recently agreed to take over Capdau Junior High School, one of our city's many failing schools. I attended Capdau in the 1960s, and it was tough even then. Discipline problems were rife. Schoolyard fights were a daily occurrence. Many students who attended Capdau didn't graduate from high school. Still, I got at least an adequate education there. And that was because I had a handful of excellent teachers, particularly those in math and English. The belief that teachers can and do make a difference is such a standard theme of motion pictures that we seldom see a movie season pass without a film that employs it. Pulling titles off the top of my head, I think of Goodbye Mr. Chips, Dead Poets Society, Stand and Deliver, Mr. Holland's Opus, Music of the Heart, The Emperor's Club and Finding Forrester. Now French cinema has produced To Be and To Have, a heartwarming documentary about a real teacher working quiet miracles in an out-of-the-way place.

Directed with restraint and discretion by Nicolas Philibert, To Be and To Have is one of the highlights of this weekend's French Film Festival at the Prytania Theatre. The Festival, sponsored by the New Orleans Film Festival, also features Intimate Strangers, contemporary French animation, Demonlover and A Woman Is a Woman. (See Film Listings for showtime information.) To Be and To Have is the story of Georges Lopez and his 13 students in a one-room, rural French school. Mr. Lopez is a balding, middle-aged man nearing retirement. The son of a Spanish immigrant laborer, Georges loved school in his own youth and made his blue-collar parents proud by choosing a career as an educator. Georges has been teaching for 35 years, the last 20 at the school in the tiny agricultural village of Saint-Etienne-sur-Usson. His pupils range in age from 4-year-old Marie to 12-year-old sixth-grade bruisers Olivier and Julien. Mr. Lopez's crowded classroom is divided into three areas for "the big ones," "the middle ones" and "the little ones." Sometimes he can coordinate lessons for all his students at once. But usually he gives two groups assignments while he works more directly with the third.

Mr. Lopez teaches "the little ones" to read, to shape their letters and numbers correctly, to count and to add. Because they are of different ages and different intellectual abilities, he has to devote separate efforts to almost every child. Though the youngest, Marie is quick and needs less attention than others. Letitia, perhaps 6, can't seem to count beyond her own age. She is repeatedly baffled by the number seven. JoJo has a sweet disposition, and it's clear that he loves his teacher, but he perhaps suffers from Attention Deficit Disorder. He's always losing focus, and at one point Mr. Lopez has to keep him inside during playtime because he once again hasn't finished his work. Mr. Lopez teaches "the big ones" to do fractions and long division. And he takes the whole class on a field trip to the crowded middle school Olivier and Julien hope to attend next year.

Without making the point overtly, director Philibert makes clear the long hours that Georges must work. The camera captures him at his desk late at night making lesson plans and in his classroom in the early morning long before the children arrive. Clearly, Mr. Lopez performs duties that transcend mere classroom instruction. He's resident shrink, moral mentor, cheerleader, relentless coach, big brother, favorite uncle and surrogate parent. All good teachers play some of these roles at times, but because the students stay with Mr. Lopez from pre-school all the way through sixth grade, his involvement with them is especially close. He tries to counsel the feuding Olivier and Julien. He encourages the painfully shy 12-year-old Nathalie to come out of her shell. And he teaches them all how to cook. When JoJo smears himself with fingerpaint, Mr. Lopez takes the sponge and washes the child's hands and face.

As this pictures meanders through its school year, and we come to know the children by face and name, we become ever more involved with them and their teacher. We root for them when they struggle, and we smile with a full heart when they commit small acts of kindness. We know what they do not yet: that they have had a special blessing, to go to this kind of school led by this kind of teacher.

And the end brings moist eyes. School is out, and the children leave for vacation, each, even the graduating boys, with a fond kiss on both cheeks for Mr. Lopez. And then he stands in the doorway alone, knowing what riches he has, what he will have to sacrifice to retire.

click to enlarge Teacher Georges Lopez patiently tries to get 4-year-old student JoJo to focus in Nicolas Philibert's wonderful documentary To Be and To Have.
  • Teacher Georges Lopez patiently tries to get 4-year-old student JoJo to focus in Nicolas Philibert's wonderful documentary To Be and To Have.
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