The Last Lesson by Alphonse Daudet
Thanks to the never-ending wars, and pointless political ambitions of monarchs, Europe’s political map changed with astounding frequency since the World War 1. The flux continues even today, despite the realization that such wars are extremely ruinous. Alphonse Daudet (1840-1897) was a French story writer of great renown. In this story, he captures the grief and emotions of a French village school in an area that has fallen to the advancing Prussian (German) army. The Prussian commanders order German to be the medium of instructions ion the school which had a dedicated French teacher and pupils whose mother tongue was French. The trauma of the teacher and the pupils was palpable.
The story …
Hamel was the French teacher of the school. He took his teaching quite seriously. He had a pupil by the name Franz, who didn’t have his heart in the lessons. Instead, he enjoyed wandering around in the nearby woods. No wonder, he loathed his home tasks and rarely came prepared to the class. That day, his teacher had asked the students to come prepared with ‘participles’, and the truant Franz was ill prepared to face his teacher, Hamel. On that day, the woods and the chirping birds beckoned Franz to their midst, but he had to attend the dreary class.
On his way to school, Franz saw a group of villagers crowded around the Bulletin Board, stretching their necks to reads a freshly-pinned news bulletin. The Bulletin Board had brought only depressing news in the last two years, of setbacks in the battle front, and defeats. The villagers had become inured to such gloomy tidings.
The boy was curious to see what else bad news had come then. The village blacksmith and the watchman were there. They mockingly asked the boy not to hurry to school. There was a sense of resignation in their voice. Nevertheless, Franz dashed off to the school.
But, the school appeared to be eerily quiet. A pall of silence had descended on the boisterous students who normally create quite a buzz on normal days. Through the window, he could see his friends sitting inside lifelessly. Hamel was pacing up and down the class room with his usual iron ruler tucked in his arm. Although Franz had wanted to sneak in unnoticed, he had to enter the class in the full view of his teacher and the other fellow students. It was so embarrassing for him to walk in late.
Quite uncharacteristically, Hamel appeared subdued and circumspect. The fury and fire in his voice was gone. He asked Franz to take his seat. When his fearful mind regained its composure, he found that his teacher was attired in his formal dress – a green court, frilled shirt and the embroidered silk cap. It took Franz by surprise as his teacher didn’t wear this dress except on formal occasions or when an inspector came avisiting. The mood inside the class room was sombre.
What surprised Franz more was the fact that the empty back benches were on that day occupied by a few villager, the ex-mayor and the ex-headman. Old Hauser was there too with his glasses and his elementary text book.
Hamel rose to his chair, and in an emotion-filled voice solemnly declared that this was his last class. Orders had been received from Berlin that only German would be taught in the school from then on. A new teacher was due the next day, who would take over from him and teach German. Saying this, Hamel urged his pupils to be very attentive.
Hamel’s declaration left Franz perplexed. He could surmise that this was the news the villagers were reading in the Bulletin Board.
Instead of being relieved and happy that his trauma was over, Franz was filled with remorse. Lost in the woods and among the birds, he had hardly learnt anything of French. And the lessons would not be available anymore. The sadness underwhelmed Franz.
It dawned on Franz that his teacher had put on his formal dress for this occasion and the village folks were there to express their solidarity with the departing teacher. Hamel had put in four decades of service at the school.
Franz was asked by his teacher. His heart sank in trepidation. He soon fumbled. He stood there with head bowed in shame and fear. Hamel sounded surprisingly soft. Instead of scowling at Franz, Hamel reminded Franz how he had failed in his duty to learn his mother tongue well. He had procrastinated as had Alsace. Putting off doing lessons for the next day had robbed both of the opportunity of availing a mentor’s guidance. There would be no French lesson any more. As his final word in humility, Hamel told Franz that all humans had their share of failings.
Hamel blamed Franz’s parents for sending him out to work in a nearby mill for earning wage at the cost of his studies. Hamel himself had asked the boy to water the plants in the garden while he should have been in the class room, learning French. And, as a lax teacher he had permitted Franz to leave the school at will for his errands.
Hamel proceeded to sing the praise of the French language, describing its innate beauty. He extolled the students and the senior citizens present there to treasure French in their hearts and never neglect it.
Hamel opened the grammar book and began to teach a lesson from it. On that occasion, his explanations appeared so lucid, and so clear. Franz loved what his teacher taught. Hamel apparently was pouring his heart out before his class.
After the grammar class, the writing class started. Hamel had brought brand new copies for his students. He had written ‘France, Alsace, France, Alsace’ in bold beautiful letters on them. Hamel’s passion for French came bursting forth from those letters. The whole class started their writing work with unprecedented zeal. Their teacher’s dedication was infectious. There was pin drop silence in the class room. The intruding beetles failed to distract the pupils. The pigeons cooed as usual. Franz wondered if the invading Germans would try to hammer down German through the pigeons’ throats.
With the whole class engrossed in writing, Hamel slipped into a mood of reflection. He cast his glance keenly in all directions as if to emboss the environment’s memory in his mind. He had aged with the school. Having to leave it in such ignominy left him dejected and broken. His sister was hurriedly packing their belongings as they had been ordered to leave the country the next day.
After the writing class the history class followed. The older folks in the class started their practice with basic French. The determination and grief in their voice was palpable. Hauser broke down.
It was noon. The church bell sounded 12. The Prussians in the field nearby were doing their drill. Soon they would be in the school. Hamel rose, struggling with emotions to say his final words. In big bold letters, he wrote “Viva La France”. It was a defiant assertion of national pride by a humble school teacher.
Finally, he declared, “School is dismissed. You may go.”
Questions and answers …
- Describe Franz’s nature. .. Franz was a school going youngster who loathed the rigors and restrictions of the classroom. The outdoors charmed him as much as his studies repelled him. He has particular dislike for the grammar lessons of his teacher, Hamel, because the latter taught his French grammar too sincerely. The chirping of birds and the sight of squirrels appealed to him. This is why he dragged his feet on his way to school, but he was sensitive, patriotic and emotional. He felt the anguish of the last day as most others who heard Hamel’s mournful announcement of the forced shutdown of French language teaching.
- Describe Hamel’s nature. … Hamel was a dedicated teacher of French language. He took his duty quite seriously. At the same time, he was sentimentally attached to his school. Since he loved French language passionately, he wanted all his pupils to learn their mother tongue with the right aptitude. Hamel was dignified, patriotic and emotional.
- Why the French language teaching stopped abruptly? .. The advancing German troops were due to reach the village soon. They wanted to stamp their authority on the villagers by making them adopt German as the official language. As the first step, they ordered the closure of French classes in the village school. In the true military way, they wanted their order to come into effect immediately. There was no option, but to comply with the order.
- Why had the villagers assembled near the billboard? .. The billboard was the village’s common place from where all the war front news was disseminated. Villagers flocked around it to read the war bulletins, which were mostly about retreat of French defense forces. Villagers used to talk amongst themselves there.
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