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Written by Hunter   
Wednesday, 08 October 2008 01:09

I was very late for school that morning, and I was afraid of being
scolded, especially as Monsieur Hamel had told us that he should examine
us on participles, and I did not know the first thing about them. For a
moment I thought of staying away from school and wandering about the
fields. It was such a warm, lovely day. I could hear the blackbirds
whistling on the edge of the wood, and in the Rippert field, behind the
sawmill, the Prussians going through their drill. [Footnote: Prussians
going through their drill. The time of the story is laid at the end of
the Franco-Prussian War.] All that was much more tempting to me than the
rules concerning participles; but I had the strength to resist, and I
ran as fast as I could to school. As I passed the Mayor's office, I saw
that there were people gathered about the little board on which notices
were posted. For two years all our bad news had come from that
board--battles lost, conscriptions, [Footnote: Conscription: compulsory
enrollment for military service.] orders from headquarters; and I
thought without stopping:

"What can it be now?"

Then, as I ran across the square, Wachter the blacksmith, who stood
there with his apprentice, reading the placard, called out to me:

"Don't hurry so, my boy; you'll get to your school soon enough!"

I thought that he was making fun of me, and I ran into Monsieur Hamel's
little yard all out of breath.

Usually, at the beginning of school, there was a great uproar which
could be heard in the street, desks opening and closing, lessons
repeated aloud in unison, with our ears stuffed in order to learn
quicker, and the teacher's stout ruler beating on the desk:

"A little more quiet!"

I counted on all this noise to reach my bench unnoticed, but as it
happened, that day everything was quiet, like a Sunday morning. Through
the open window I saw my comrades already in their places, and Monsieur
Hamel walking back and forth with the terrible iron ruler under his arm.
I had to open the door and enter, in the midst of that perfect silence.
You can imagine whether I blushed and whether I was afraid!

But no! Monsieur Hamel looked at me with no sign of anger and said very

"Go at once to your seat, my little Frantz; we were going to begin
without you."

I stepped over the bench and sat down at once at my desk. Not until
then, when I had partly recovered from my fright, did I notice that our
teacher had on his handsome blue coat, his plaited ruff, and the black
embroidered breeches, which he wore on days of inspection or of
distribution of prizes. Moreover, there was something extraordinary,
something solemn about the whole class. But what surprised me most was
to see at the back of the room, on the benches which were usually empty,
some people from the village sitting, as silent as we were: old Hauser
with his three-cornered hat, the ex-mayor, the ex-postman, and others
besides. They all seemed depressed; and Hauser had brought an old
spelling-book with gnawed edges, which he held wide-open on his knee,
with his great spectacles askew.

While I was wondering at all this, Monsieur Hamel had mounted his
platform, and in the same gentle and serious voice with which he had
welcomed me, he said to us:

"My children, this is the last time that I shall teach you. Orders have
come from Berlin to teach nothing but German in the schools of Alsace
and Lorraine. The new teacher arrives to-morrow. This is the last class
in French, so I beg you to be very attentive."

Those few words overwhelmed me. Ah! the villains! that was what they had
posted at the mayor's office.

My last class in French!

And I barely knew how to write! So I should never learn! I must stop
short where I was! How angry I was with myself because of the time I had
wasted, the lessons I had missed, running about after nests, or sliding
on the Saar! [Footnote: Saar: a river just beyond the northeast border
line of the province of Lorraine.] My books, which only a moment before
I thought so tiresome, so heavy to carry--my grammar, my sacred
history--seemed to me now like old friends, from whom I should be
terribly grieved to part. And it was the same about Monsieur Hamel. The
thought that he was going away, that I should never see him again, made
me forget the punishments, the blows with the ruler.

Poor man! It was in honor of that last lesson that he had put on his
fine Sunday clothes; and I understood now why those old fellows from the
village were sitting at the end of the room. It seemed to mean that they
regretted not having come oftener to the school. It was also a way of
thanking our teacher for his forty years of faithful service, and of
paying their respects to the fatherland which was vanishing.

I was at that point in my reflections, when I heard my name called. It
was my turn to recite. What would I not have given to be able to say
from the beginning to the end that famous rule about participles, in a
loud, distinct voice, without a slip! But I got mixed up at the first
words, and I stood there swaying against my bench, with a full heart,
afraid to raise my head. I heard Monsieur Hamel speaking to me:

"I will not scold you, my little Frantz; you must be punished enough;
that is the way it goes; every day we say to ourselves: 'Pshaw! I have
time enough. I will learn to-morrow.' And then you see what happens. Ah!
it has been the great misfortune of our Alsace always to postpone its
lessons until to-morrow. 'What! you claim to be French, and you can
neither speak nor write your language!' In all this, my poor Frantz, you
are not the guiltiest one. We all have our fair share of reproaches to
address to ourselves.

"Your parents have not been careful enough to see that you were
educated. They preferred to send you to work in the fields or in the
factories, in order to have a few more sous. And have I nothing to
reproach myself for? Have I not often made you water my garden instead
of studying? And when I wanted to go fishing for trout, have I ever
hesitated to dismiss you?"

Then passing from one thing to another, Monsieur Hamel began to talk to
us about the French language, saying that it was the most beautiful
language in the world, the most clear, the most substantial; that we
must always retain it among ourselves, and never forget it, because when
a people falls into servitude, "so long as it clings to its language, it
is as if it held the key to its prison." Then he took the grammar and
read us our lesson. I was amazed to see how readily I understood.
Everything that he said seemed so easy to me, so easy. I believed, too,
that I had never listened so closely, and that he, for his part, had
never been so patient with his explanations. One would have said that,
before going away, the poor man desired to give us all his knowledge, to
force it all into our heads at a single blow.

When the lesson was at an end, we passed to writing. For that day
Monsieur Hamel had prepared some entirely new examples, on which was
written in a fine, round hand: "France, Alsace, France, Alsace." They
were like little flags, waving all about the class, hanging from the
rods of our desks. You should have seen how hard we all worked and how
silent it was! Nothing could be heard save the grinding of the pens over
the paper. At one time some cockchafers [Footnote: Cockchafers: a
species of beetle.] flew in; but no one paid any attention to them not
even the little fellows, who were struggling with their straight lines,
with a will and conscientious application, as if even the lines were
French. On the roof of the schoolhouse, pigeons cooed in low tones, and
I said to myself as I listened to them:

"I wonder if they are going to compel them to sing German too!"

From time to time, when I raised my eyes from my paper, I saw Monsieur
Hamel sitting motionless in his chair and staring at the objects about
him as if he wished to carry away in his glance the whole of his little
schoolhouse. Think of it! For forty years he had been there in the same
place, with his yard in front of him and his class just as it was! But
the benches and desks were polished and rubbed by use; the walnuts in
the yard had grown, and the hop-vine which he himself had planted now
festooned the windows even to the roof. What a heartrending thing it
must have been for that poor man to leave all those things, and to hear
his sister walking back and forth in the room overhead, packing their
trunks! For they were to go away the next day--to leave the province

However, he had the courage to keep the class to the end. After the
writing, we had the lesson in history; then the little ones sang all
together the ba, be, bi, bo, bu. Yonder, at the back of the room, old
Hauser had put on his spectacles, and, holding his spelling-book in both
hands, he spelled out the letters with them. I could see that he too was
applying himself. His voice shook with emotion, and it was so funny to
hear him, that we all longed to laugh and to cry. Ah! I shall remember
that last class.

Suddenly the church struck twelve, then the Angelus [Footnote: Angelus:
the angelus bell, which is rung at morning, noon, and night.] rang. At
the same moment, the bugles of the Prussians returning from drill blared
under our windows. Monsieur Hamel rose, pale as death, from his chair.
Never had he seemed to me so tall.

"My friends," he said, "my friends, I--I--"

But something suffocated him. He could not finish the sentence.

Thereupon he turned to the blackboard, took a piece of chalk, and,
bearing on with all his might, he wrote in the largest letters he could:

"Vive La France!" [Footnote: Vive la France: "Long live France."]

Then he stood there with his head resting against the wall, and without
speaking, he motioned to us with his hand:

"That is all; go."


[Footnote: Compare this story with "A Leaf in the Storm." What do such
stories make you think of "the glory of conquest"? Why was the decree
made that this was to be "the last class in French"? Does the author
make this story a personal tragedy or the tragedy of France? Where is
the climax of the story? Is it effective? What kind of spirit does it
show? Does that spirit live in France to-day?]
Last Updated on Wednesday, 08 October 2008 12:26
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