The Last Class
Told by a little Alsatian
This morning I was very late getting to school and I was afraid of being scolded because M. Hamel had said he would be quizzing us on the participles and I didn’t know the first word. It occurred to me that I might skip class and run afield. The day was warm and bright, the blackbirds were whistling at the edge of the woods, and in the meadow behind the sawmill the Prussians were practicing. Everything seemed much nicer than the rule of participles; but I resisted the urge and hurried toward school.
Passing the town hall, I saw a group of people gathered in front of the notice board. For the past two years that has been where we’ve gotten all the bad news, the battles lost, the demands, the commands; and I thought without stopping: “What now?” Then as I ran by, the blacksmith Wachter, who was there with his apprentice reading the postings, called to me: “Don’t rush, boy; you have plenty of time to get to school!” I thought he was teasing me, and I was out of breath as I reached M. Hamel’s.
Normally, when class starts, there is noise enough to be heard from the street as desks are opened and shut, students repeat lessons together and loudly with hands over ears to learn better, and the teacher’s big ruler knocking on the tables: “Let’s have some quiet!” I was hoping to use the commotion to sneak into place unnoticed, but today all was silent, like a Sunday morning. Through the open window I saw my classmates already in their seats and M. Hamel, who went back and forth with his terrible iron ruler under his arm. I had to open the door and enter amidst this great calm. You can imagine how flushed and fearful I was!
But no, M. Hamel looked at me evenly and said gently: “Take your seat quickly, little Franz, we were starting without you.” I hopped the bench and sat at my desk right away. Only after I had settled in did I notice our teacher had on his fancy green coat, his ruffled shirt and the embroidered silk cap he only wore on inspection or award days. Also, the whole room seemed oddly solemn. But what surprised me most was at the back of the room where the benches were always empty now sat people of the village, quietly like us: the old Hauser with his tricorn, the former mayor, the former postmaster, and some others. Everyone looked sad; and Hauser had brought his old primer, worn at the edges, which he held open on his knees with his glasses resting on the pages.
While I was taking all this in, M. Hamel stood by his chair and in the same grave, gentle voice with which he had welcomed me told us: “Children, this is the last time I will teach the class. Orders from Berlin require that only German be taught in the schools of Alsace and Lorraine … the new teacher arrives tomorrow. Today is your last French lesson. I ask for your best attention.” These words hit me hard. Ah! Those beasts, that’s what they had posted at the town hall. My last French lesson …
Yet I hardly knew how to write! I had learned nothing! And I would learn no more! I wished now to have the lost time back, the classes missed as I hunted for eggs or went skating on the Saar! My books that I had always found so boring, so heavy to carry, my grammar text, my history of the saints—they seemed to me like old friends I couldn’t bear to abandon. It was the same with M. Hamel. The idea that he was leaving made me forget his scolding and the thumps of his ruler. Poor man!
It was in honor of this final class that he had worn his best Sunday outfit, and now I understood why the old men from the village were gathered at the rear of the class. They were there to show that they too were sorry for neglecting to attend school more. It was also a way to thank our teacher of forty years for his fine service, and to show their respect for the country that was disappearing.
I was pondering these things when I heard my name called. It was my turn to recite. What wouldn’t I have given to say that vaunted rule of participles loudly, clearly, flawlessly? Instead I tangled the first words and stood, hanging onto my desk, my heart pounding, unable to raise my head. I heard M. Hamel say: “I won’t scold you, my little Franz, you must already feel bad … That’s how it is. We always say: ‘Bah! I have time. I’ll learn “tomorrow.”’ And now you see it has come … Ah! It is Alsace’s great trouble that she always puts off learning until tomorrow. Now people will be justified in saying to us: ‘How come you pretend to be French and yet don’t know how to read or write your language!” You are not the most guilty of this, my poor Franz. We all have good reason to blame ourselves.
Your parents did not press you to learn your lessons. They’d prefer to have you work in the fields or at the mill to earn some more money. Myself, I am not blameless. Haven’t I sent you to water my garden instead of work? And when I wanted to go fishing, didn’t I give you the day off?"
Then, from one thing to another, M. Hamel spoke of the French tongue, saying it was the most beautiful language in the world, the most clear, the most sensible. That we must keep it ourselves and never forget it, because when a people if they hold onto their language it is like holding the prison key …
Then he took a grammar text and read us our lesson. I was stunned to realize how well I understood it. Everything he said seemed so easy, easy! I believe also that I had never listened so well and that he had never explained to us so patiently. One might think that the poor man wished to give us all his knowledge, to fill our heads in a single try.
After grammar, we moved on to writing. For this day, M. Hamel had prepared new examples, written in beautiful, round script: France, Alsace, France, Alsace. They looked like little flags floating about the classroom, hung from the rods atop our desks. It was something to see everyone set to our work, and so silently! The only sound was the scratching of pens on paper. Once some beetles flew in but no one paid them any attention, not even the little ones who were assiduously tracing their figures with one heart, one mind, as if this also were French … On the roof the pigeons cooed softly. When I heard them I said to myself: “Will they be forced to sing in German, too?” From time to time when I’d raise my eyes from my writing I would see M. Hamel still in his chair staring at the objects around him as if he wanted to memorize exactly how things were in the little schoolhouse.
Imagine! For forty years, he’d been in the same place with his yard before him and all the class likewise. The benches and desks were polished, worn with use; the walnut trees had grown, and the hops he’d planted himself now climbed around the windows to the roof. How heart-breaking it must be for the poor man to leave all these things, to hear his sister packing their things in the room above.
They would have to leave the country the next day, forever.
All the same, he bravely kept class to the very end. After writing, we had a history lesson, then the little ones sang together their BA BE BI BO BU. At the rear of the room, old Hauser put on his glasses and, holding his primer in both hands, chanted the letters with them. It was obviously a great effort for him; his voice trembled with emotion and it was so funny to hear him that we wanted to laugh and cry. Ah! I do remember that last class…
Suddenly the church clock struck noon. During the Angelus we could hear the Prussians’ trumpets beneath the windows as they returned from their exercises… M. Hamel rose, colorless, from his chair. Never had he appeared so large.
“My friends, say, my, I … I…” But something choked him. He couldn’t say it.
He turned to the board, took a piece of chalk and, using all of his strength, he wrote as large as he could:
“VIVE LA FRANCE!”
He stayed there, his head resting on the wall, and wordlessly used his hand to motion to us: “It’s over … you may go.”