On Being Welcome


Yesterday I treated myself to two films at Film Forum: Jean-Luc Godard’s Pierrot le Fou (an old favorite) and The Teacher (by Jan Hrebejk, the director of Divided We Fall, with Csongor Kassai in one of the lead roles). Not having seen The Teacher before, I was taken with its subtle treatment of a rather flat premise: a new teacher, who happens to be chair of the Communist Party at her school, begins extorting services and favors from the students and parents. Ben Kenigsberg’s New York Times review does not do the film justice; there’s much more to it than he suggests. The texture of Hrebejk’s films–the music, pacing, dimness, gentleness–stays with me long afterward, and this film lent itself to a kind of soul-searching, not only through its subject, but through its moods and ambiguities. Kassai has become one of my favorite film actors, and I loved the others too. Each parent and child shows a mixture of confusion and principle, timidity and strength.

The soul-searching: I would never extort things from my students or their parents; all the same, do I always use my power justly? This question does not end; I must ask it again and again. Also, when witnessing abuses of power (in any setting), have I spoken up, or have I accommodated the situation? The film brings out how mixed we are: how easy it is for any of us to justify our comforts and push difficulty away, even believing that we are doing the right thing. I could have been one of the parents objecting to the petition; I could have been the head teacher in her state of relief when the meeting, which she reluctantly called and led, seems to come to nothing.

But that’s not what this post is about. While waiting in the lobby (an ample wait, since I had purchased my tickets earlier in the week and had arrived early), a boy of about thirteen or fourteen years asked me, “Are they letting people in yet for Pierrot le Fou?” He held a big bag of popcorn in one hand and a soda in the other. I told him that we were on standby; he nodded and stood by. He was all by himself. When we were let in, I went ahead; he came along and sat down two seats away from me. He seemed absorbed in the film; now and then I heard him laughing. At the end of the film, either he or someone else nearby exclaimed “Cool!” He got up and left.

I was tempted to ask him (before or after the film) what had brought him there; it isn’t every day that you see a twelve-year-old attending Pierrot le Fou alone. (Of course it isn’t  every day that you see Pierrot le Fou, so here we have the un-everyday within the un-everyday.) Did he know someone in it? Was he a young director? Did he know what he was getting into? Why didn’t he laugh during the “Est-ce que vous m’aimez” scene (or did he, maybe)? This time, I found the scene wildly silly and sad, but I don’t know how others took it.

I decided not to ask him any questions or bother him at all. I remember what one of my former students said a few years ago: “You know you’re accepted when people don’t make a big fuss about your presence–for instance, when you can go to a play and just be part of the audience.” I remembered, also, what it was like to be a kid and have people coo over me, just because I was a kid. (It wasn’t fun.) Why should kids have to justify themselves wherever they go, sit, or stand? So I left him alone. I was delighted, though, that he had the gumption to go to a movie–this particular one, no less–on his own.

But then, I must have looked rather young when, at age fourteen, I went on my own to concerts and plays in Moscow. No one bothered me, and that was grand; I could enjoy them on my own terms. Sometimes I invited classmates (or they me), but most of the time I went by myself.

Those times of liberty, of being able to explore not only your physical surroundings but works of art, music, theatre, dance, and film, help give you a foothold in the world, and not only a foothold, but a way of loosening it, a lift into the unknown.


Image credit: From a YouTube video of the “Est-ce-que vous m’aimez” scene, acted by Raymond Devos and Jean-Paul Belmondo. (I prefer the Vimeo one because it’s a little longer and shows Pierrot escaping at the end.)

I made a few minor edits to this piece after posting it.

Belonging and Apartness in Intellectual Pursuit

Last Friday, Annie Murphy Paul wrote about how learners need a sense of intellectual belonging—how, if they feel excluded by (or inferior to) their peers and role models, their learning may be constricted. I would like to propose a complementary truth: that students also need room and strength to be apart. Just how apartness and belonging should be combined in education, I do not know; I doubt that there is a perfect formula. But both have an important place, and one can fortify the other.

Much depends, of course, on what one means by “belonging.” One kind of belonging might stimulate learning; the other might limit it. It is necessary, for instance, to belong to the work itself. You are more closely joined to your music if you practice it, and to a book if you read it. But that is not only essential kind of belonging. Any member of an educational institution should be treated as a true member. If a student is admitted to a college, then as far as the college is concerned, that student belongs there. It is not right to admit a word to the sentence and then put it in parentheses—especially if that word is a person, and the sentence is a school.

In addition, teachers and students should show appropriate collegiality. If, for instance, students meet in a study group, they should announce the time and location so that all those interested may attend. If faculty have traditions of doing certain things together, then they should make sure that all are invited.

But here the matter gets tricky. It is possible for a group to become cloying—for students and faculty to spend too much time together and consult each other on minute things. There can even be too much niceness, leaving no room for healthy friction. Or else the disagreements and antagonisms come up in gossip, where rumors rise up and jagged shadows rule.

To find yourself in an intellectual (or artistic) endeavor, you need to resist the immediate collegial pull. The person who goes to the library or spends time working on a theorem may have a stronger sense of belonging (to the field itself) than those who take their meals together, attend events together, and consult each other on every mental step. Far from depending on the latest whisper, she sets her mind on sturdier things.

To speak your mind without fear, you cannot be drowning in acceptance; you must know disapproval, even rejection. Those who expect the sympathetic nods of colleagues will be thrown off when their colleagues are not nodding or smiling; they will ask themselves “what did I do wrong?” (often a deadly question). Good ideas are not consistently popular; anyone with an independent mind will fall out of favor with the group at some point. There is no shame in this; it may be a sign that the person is finding his way.

Moreover, people are not always nice. Sometimes you end up in a class with a snarly professor and grade-grubbing classmates. Or you might find yourself in a setting where nothing is blatantly wrong, but something feels amiss—where you don’t feel exactly at ease, even though no one is rejecting you. What do you do? Go look for a more cordial place? You may find something amiss there, too. It’s good to learn to hold your own in such situations; they will come and go.

What about those you admire? Should they be within your reach? Annie Murphy Paul suggests that it can be damaging to choose role models whose accomplishments are far beyond yours. Choose people closer to your range, she advises. I am not at all sure of this. One can lose oneself in the work of an intensely admired person. For a stretch of time, comparisons disappear. When they reappear, so do ideas and yearnings. The student knows what to strive for, or grasps a part of it.

Yet certain kinds of belonging do make a difference in learning. It is painful to be ignored or rejected by peers and teachers. There are places where one feels in one’s element and thrives on account of this. Yet anyone who wishes to enter a field should prepare for a bit of loneliness in it—not too much, of course, but a bit. I do mean loneliness, not just aloneness or solitude. Comfort and company are not always present, nor would things be better if they were.

How does one find the right combination of apartness and collegiality? One knows it when one finds it, but it can also shift. As much as a person longs for an intellectual home, “intellectual home” is a contradiction in terms. Intellect requires some homesickness, some conception of absent things. It also needs conversation, rapport, encouragement—but not to the point where their absence seems a calamity. The loss of a friend is sad, sometimes terribly so; the loss of approval or applause, just part of one’s work.

Note: I made a minor edit for clarity.