JEAN-PIERRE GRAS, an economics teacher at Lyc'ee Dumont d'Urville here, stands with chalk in hand before 35 fidgety students. The class, part of what is the rough equivalent of an American high school senior class, is learning about third-world agriculture. But the larger goal of Mr. Gras's instruction is to get as many of the students as possible past the hurdle that awaits them at the end of the year: the French baccalaur'eat examination. Dressed in a striped polo shirt, an oversize sweater, and jeans, Mr. Gras sets an easygoing tone. Yet while that casualness is reflected in the students' dress, it pretty much stops there. The students know -- they have been hearing ever since they can remember -- that the bachot, or bac, covering the seven or eight subjects they have studied for the past two years, will determine not only who will go on to higher education in France, but, to a great extent, what rung they can hope to attain in the French economic hierarchy. In recent years, moreover, the baccalaur'eat's formidable stature has taken on added importance, as French students contemplate the relatively young phenomenon of double-digit unemployment. Classroom atmosphere more tense today
It's a reality whose pall is almost tangible. As the teacher hurries to cover the material the students will be expected to know, he answers occasional objections or inquiries with peremptory brevity, looks past others, and ignores small knots of buzz-fly gossip. With his 35 students, half of whom are repeating the year, squeezed in behind five rows of graffiti-scarred tables, it becomes soberingly clear that the young teacher's task is not an easy one.
``Sometimes it seems almost impossible to get anything done here,'' says Mr. Gras.
Things weren't always this way at Lyc'ee Dumont d'Urville. Twelve years ago the view from the classroom was a lighter, more optimistic one. Even if the teachers then wore suits and ties -- some students still rose when a teacher entered the room -- and even if student-teacher rapport was much more adversarial than today, life at this campuslike high school -- the largest in France -- seemed happier, less crabbed.
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