That morning, Franz was taking his way very slowly to school. He had a great dread of being scolded, particularly as the school-master had said that the lesson for the day would be on participles about which Franz did not know a word. Suddenly an idea came to him. He would go through the fields.
It was so warm, so clear. He heard the blackbirds whistling on the borders of the wood, and in the meadow, behind the saw-mill, the Prussians were drilling. Then, as he passed on by the residence of the mayor, Franz saw them putting a notice on the gate. There, for two years, had been given out all the bad news; lost battles for Alsace, calls to arms, the orders of the command. The blacksmith and his apprentice were putting up the notice, and Franz called,
“What has happened, that they are posting a bulletin again?” But the blacksmith spoke gruffly,
“Why do you loiter, little one? It is not safe. Run along quickly to school.”
So Franz made haste at last, although he was sure that the blacksmith was not in earnest, and he arrived all breathless, at his class.
School seemed, somehow, very different to Franz that morning. There was ordinarily a good deal of noise as the children came in from the street, desks were opened, and lessons were repeated out loud and all in unison, and the school-master pounded with his ruler on his table.
Now, however, there was silence.
Although Franz was late, the school-master looked at him without the least anger, and spoke softly as he said, “Go quickly to your place, my little Franz. We have already begun without you.”
Franz seated himself at his desk. Only then, his fear gone, he noticed that the master had on his best green frock coat, his finely plaited shirt and the black silk cap that he never wore except on a day when there were prizes given out in school. All the children were extraordinarily quiet. But what surprised Franz the most was to see at the back of the room, seated on the benches which were ordinarily empty, the people of the village. There was an old soldier with his tri-colored flag, the old mayor of the town, the postman, and many others. Everyone seemed sad. And the old soldier had a spelling book, ragged on the edges, that he held open on his knees, as he followed the pages through his great spectacles.
As little Franz watched all this, astonished, the school-master rose from his chair, and in the same grave, soft voice in which he had spoken to the boy, he said,
“My children, this is the last time that I shall teach your class. The order has come from Berlin that no language but German shall be taught in the schools of Alsace and Lorraine. Your new master arrives to-morrow. To-day, you will have your last lesson in French. I pray that you will be very attentive.”
Franz’s last lesson in French! And he could not write it without mistakes! He remembered all the time that he had wasted, the lessons he had missed in hunting for birds’ nests, or skating on the river. He thought of his books that would remind him always now, of his laziness–his grammar, his history, a present from his friend, the school-master, from whom he must part now with so much pain. In the midst of these thoughts, Franz heard his name called. It was his turn to recite.
He would have given a great deal to be able to recite the famous order of the participles, without a mistake, to give them clearly, and without a fault. But he confused them at the first word, and remained standing beside his desk, his heart trembling, not daring to raise his head. He heard the school-master speaking to him,
“I am not going to rebuke you, little Franz. You are already punished. Every day you have said to yourself, ‘Bah, I have plenty of time; to-morrow I will study.'”
“Ah, that has been the great fault in our Alsace, that of always putting off learning until another day. In the meantime, all the world has been quite right in saying of us, ‘How is it that you pretend to be French, and yet are not able to read and write your own language!’ Of all who are here, my poor little Franz, you are not the only one at fault. We all must reproach ourselves.”
Then the school-master told them of his longing to still teach the children the French language. He said that it would always be the most beautiful language of the world. He said that he wanted it treasured in Alsace and never forgotten, because, when a people fall into slavery it is almost like holding the key to their prison if they can speak to each other in the same tongue. Afterward he took a grammar and went over the lesson with the children. All that he read seemed suddenly quite easy to Franz; he had never attended so well, and never before had he understood how patient the school-master was in his explanations.
When the lesson was finished, writing was begun. For this last day, the master had prepared fresh copies.
_France, Alsace. France, Alsace_.
The copies were like little flags, floating all over the schoolroom from the tops of the desks. Nothing broke the great silence but the scratching of the pens upon the paper. Suddenly some May bugs flew in through the window, but no one noticed them. On the roof of the school some pigeons began to coo, and Franz thought to himself, “Will it be commanded that the birds, too, speak to us in a foreign language?”
From time to time, as Franz lifted his eyes from his paper, he saw the school-master sitting quietly in his chair, and looking all about him, as if he wanted to remember always every child and every bit of furniture in his little schoolroom. Only think, for forty years, he had been there in his place, with the playground facing him, and his class always as full! Only the benches and the desks which had once been polished were worn from usage now; the walnut trees in the yard had grown very large, and the hop vine that he, himself, had planted twined now above the window and as far as the roof. It was breaking the heart of the school-master to leave all these things.
But he had the courage to carry on the class to the very end. After the writing lesson, he began the lesson in history. Afterward, the little ones sang their A. B. C.’s all together and at the end of the room the old soldier took off his spectacles and, holding his spelling book in his two hands, he read off the letters with them.
Suddenly the clock in the tower of the village church sounded the hour of noon. Instantly, the trumpet call of the Prussians, returning from their drilling, burst through the windows. The school-master rose, quite pale, in his place. Never had he seemed so great to the children.
“My friends,” he said, “my little friends, I–”
But he could say no more; he was not able to speak the words. He turned to the blackboard and, taking a piece of chalk, he wrote upon it,
“_Vive la France!_”
Afterward, he remained there, his head resting against the wall, and, without speaking, he made a sign with his hand.
“It is finished. You are dismissed.”
Alphonse Daudet’s short story: The Last Class
There is also a YouTube version put up by Mr. Robert Steiner.
In the backdrop of the recent outrage in the Charlie Hebdo office,Paris on Jan 8. 2015 by cultural bankrupts this story should be read as closely as a wake-up call. Any dent on the French Spirit sooner or later shall affect the rest of Europe. So Resist!