This school teaches you to be lazy
Mona Nicoara’s film Our School just played for its first public audiences at the One World Film Festival in Prague and the Thessaloniki Documentary Festival in Greece, and watching it with an audience makes me see it in a whole new way. [Full disclosure: the filmmaker is my wife.]
The film provides some profound food for thought for anyone who has been the least bit curious about the realities of educational segregation, from the point of view of the children experiencing it.
(One wonders where you can find that point of view in the otherwise well-documented civil rights movement in the United States.)
The trajectory of the film is set up by Alin, one of the three children the film follows from rising expectations through to dashed hopes. “This school taught you to be lazy,” says Alin, pointing to the one-room schoolhouse in his community on the outskirts of a town in the Transylvania region of Romania. With an expression that shows the weight of the world the way only a 12-year-old can carry it, he continues: “It’s better in other schools than here. You can learn. You can play.”
Roma activists and human rights groups throughout Europe have had impressive success in drawing attention to the discriminatory practice of segregating Roma children into separate, poorly-run schools or classrooms or warehousing them in “special schools” for children with intellectual disabilities. This fact was not lost on the audiences in the Czech Republic and Greece; both countries have been sued successfully in the European Court of Human Rights for segregating Roma school children.
Indeed, human rights law and legal institutions have defined the issue, in ways strongly reminiscent of how the watershed Supreme Court case Brown vs. Board of Education preceded the civil rights movement in the United States. In Europe, the landmark 2007 European Court of Human Rights judgment D.H. and others v. the Czech Republic set the pace. And there has been successful follow-up litigation at the European Court and national courts alike. (See, for example, the 2010 court ruling against the Miskolc municipality in Hungary.) Still, a few days prior to the screening of Our School in Prague last week, the Council of Europe issued a report finding that “little has changed” in the schooling of Roma three years after the D.H. judgment. (Details about the Czech government’s approach to the issue are explored in a blog post by Jim Goldston, one of the lawyers who brought the D.H. case.)
Meanwhile, we have Alin standing in for all the kids that continue to get a third rate education, despite favorable court rulings and the best efforts of international institutions.
Legal recognition of the right of Roma children to a decent education is a critical first step. But the courts, by themselves, are not up to the job of reversing the patterns that are revealed sympathetically but without apology in Our School. If we don’t want to see the bulk of another generation of Roma children doomed to repeat age-old patterns, we are going to need to do a much better job of listening to the children and meeting their needs. One of the teachers in Our School shows us how, but she isn’t given the opportunity to stick with it long enough to save even one child’s future.
To be sure, it is important to continue supporting Roma activists in bringing attention to the issue, helping them access levers of power and influence, including the legal system. But to end this heart-breaking story of dead-end kids full of hope living up to low expectations requires a much deeper societal response than a court judgment or human rights report can deliver.
How might that happen? I don’t claim to know the answer. But it seems to me that sustained improvement on this highly complex and extraordinarily localized problem can only come with understanding -- understanding that eventually permeates deeply enough into society that it can begin to erode deeply entrenched patterns, one community at a time.
Our School offers us the hope that such understanding can be achieved.