Remember the one-room schoolhouse, where children of all ages would come together to learn the three R's? In France, they're called "single-class schools," and they still exist, although perhaps not for long -- unless Nicolas Philibert's To Be and to Have has something to say about it. A fly-on-the-wall documentary in the Frederick Wiseman tradition, To Be and to Have spends a school year with a dozen students, age 3 to 11, in the northern village of Saint-Ãtienne sur Usson. And in his quietly unobtrusive way, Philibert makes the case for this humble institution of lower learning. The lesson plan is as various as life itself: reading, writing and arithmetic, but also how to wash your hands properly and how to flip a pancake.
Imparting all this knowledge is a rather remarkable man named Georges Lopez, whose soothing voice and firm-but-gentle discipline would be the envy of any teacher anywhere. We watch Lopez as he patiently drills his students, trying to light the spark for a lifetime of learning. But we also watch him as he calmly deals with whatever the students happen to throw his way -- playground brawls, a boy whose father is succumbing to cancer, a girl who may be retreating into autism. In one scene, the older students, paired off with the younger students, show them how to write something in their notebooks. It's a synergistic display of pride and admiration that left me wishing my school had had a lot fewer rooms.