I Want to Scream, 'He Needs Help, Not Punishment!'

As educators and parents, if we stop and listen…if we watch…maybe we will see something that we didn’t before.

I just recently saw a French film I found incredibly moving. The movie, called "Monsieur Lazhar," pulled at my heart strings for days afterwards. The story takes place in Montreal at an exclusive independent school.

One Thursday morning, a 4th grade student arrives to his classroom only to find his beloved teacher hanging from a pipe, having committed suicide in the classroom.  The storyline of the movie depicts how each character deals with and  tries to understand this senseless act of suicide. Even more complicated is the constant wonder of why their beloved teacher would choose to commit suicide in the space where these 11 year olds have to sit every day.

The school principal does what she knows how to do best. She runs the school. She immediately hires a new teacher and focuses on the education of these students. She instructs this new teacher, Monsieur Lazhar, to teach language arts and mathematics. She forbids him to talk with his students about the suicide. The principal holds the teacher accountable for lessons, exams and test scores. The school has a reputation for providing a top notch education and that is what the principal intends to give these kids, regardless of what they are going through emotionally. 

The administrator decides to begin dealing with the tragedy by having the
classroom repainted “hospital white” and instructing the janitor to remove all of the teacher’s wall hangings, posters and personal belongings.  Next, the administration brings in a psychologist to work with the class. We don’t see how this psychologist runs her sessions or what she says to the children. She does not allow their teacher, Monsieur Lazhar to stay for the sessions and she refuses to listen to or acknowledge his thoughts on the children’s individual or emotional state. 

It is not completely clear to the audience how many sessions she has with  the class but the psychologists seems to be satisfied with the results after  only a few visits.

The story examines each student and how their teacher, Bachir Lazhar, witnesses the pain and confusion these kids go through as they try to make sense of everything that has happened.  As the story follows each character, the audience can see how the tragedy affects each child differently. Some of the kids isolate, some shut down and some act out.  

What has me still thinking about this movie is the disconnect between the
adults and the children. For those of us who are parents or work with children, we know that not all children are the same. There is not one solution or method of dealing with behavior that works with every single child. Even in a family, where the children are raised and exposed to the same things, each child is different and responds differently in certain situations. In addition, the task of educating these kids when they are so emotionally distraught, almost becomes an impossible task for Monsieur.  For all of the educators reading this, you know  first-hand how difficult it is to educate a child that is experiencing emotional turmoil.

At one point in the movie, there is a scene where a fight takes place between 2 of the boys at a school dance. The adults are furious and drag the boys apart. As the observer, we know what is going on inside each boys head. We know the pain both are feeling and we watch how each child deals with it in their own way. We see how a “slap” on the back of one boy’s head can turn into an all-out brawl at the most inappropriate time and place.  We can almost “feel” each child’s emotional pain. 

Following the fight, the school administration and some teachers have a meeting to determine the consequences each boy will receive for fighting. We watch as each adult gives their opinion. One teacher wants the one boy expelled, yet the principal says, “I think he can still be saved.”  We watch as each adult negotiate this boy’s fate. I want to scream, “He needs help, not punishment!”

All human beings, adults as well as children, deal with their pain in various ways. Many teens deal with their emotional pain with self mutilation or cutting themselves. Some use drugs and alcohol. Some commit suicide. Some push away the ones that love them. Some isolate.  And some take their aggression out on their peers.

Nobody likes a bully. It is an adult’s job to protect those who are bullied. It is the adult’s job to stop those who bully. When you hear about a bully story, don’t be so quick to judge. Our children’s lives are not movies.  We can’t see what is "really going on.”

Give a child the benefit of the doubt. Stop and listen. Find out what is going on inside that child. I am the first one to say, we can’t change a bully. We can’t control what other people do. But this movie reminded me that sometimes people act out for reasons that we can’t relate to. As educators and parents, if we stop and listen…if we watch…maybe we will see something that we didn’t before.

Jill Brown
Generation Text Online

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