The Difference Between Firmness and Cruelty

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A story that appeared recently in Libération, the left-wing French newspaper in financial difficulty, seemed to me to capture the spirit of our times very well. It concerned an attack on a teacher in a ZEP (a zone d’éducation prioritaire), one of those areas in which children are brought up to, or at any rate often exhibit, arrogant insolence, capricious defiance, and a sense of thwarted entitlement.

The teacher, named only as Marie in the article, was attacked in mid-lesson by a large male youth previously unknown to her who suddenly burst into her classroom and struck her in the face ten times with a knuckleduster. She fell to the ground bleeding. She needed fifteen stitches and not surprisingly, the attack altered her view of the world. She became generally fearful, which she had never been before. But the worst thing for her was that it took from her the desire to do what she had most wanted to do: teach in a ZEP.

Marie was a genuine and admirable idealist. She wanted to teach in a bad area (her subject was French) to save at least some of her pupils from the temptations of the terrible popular culture that leads them into a dead end of violence, drugs, and desolation. She was, if you like, an evangelist for civilization.

Fortunately, police caught her attacker. It emerged that he had been put up to the attack by a 14-year-old member of her class whom she had caught forging school documents and attaching an official stamp to them. She insisted on taking disciplinary action against him, and when his campaign against her failed—he had scrawled “Filthy whore” on the walls and accused her of being a fantasist—he resorted to crueler methods.

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