When I first read Alphonse Daudet short story “The Last Lesson” back in school, I thought it was an exaggerated tale oozing with blown-up nostalgia and fancy hyperbole. Set in the days of the Franco-Prussian War in which the forces of Bismarck were victorious and, by an order from Berlin, German language was imposed on the French districts of Alsace and Lorraine, it describes the last day of a French teacher in his old school and the first when a student realises his importance. I never imagined then that one day, I would have a similar experience, though in a different context, a different setting.
Last week, I woke up to a rainy morning. Rumbling, dark clouds, thunder and rain pervaded the atmosphere. Unusual, freak weather for April, I reasoned; and reluctantly, got ready for university. Luckily, I made it just in time for the econometric applications class. Our professor, noted agricultural economist Gurmail Singh, is a brilliant econometrician and an ideal mentor. Regrettably, the sassy behaviour of our class didn’t match his expectations.
He is never absent or late for any lecture; but that day, he didn’t turn up on time. Many classmates, who usually were locked out for reaching late, thanked their stars. The others sighed. When professor Gurmail Singh stepped into the class after a while, he wasn’t his usual self. He was sad, we could see, but not angry or annoyed. The glow on his face was missing. We knew something was wrong. Maybe we had gone overboard and taken him for a ride. Gregarious, compassionate, and large-hearted, he started the lecture by announcing it would be his last.
He started out by apologising to each of us if he was at fault for not delivering. We didn’t know where to look, where to hide our shameless faces. We felt small. His eloquent silence sliced through our hearts like a cleaver. No apparent flow of blood, but the cold, biting pain lingered. The poignancy was hard to miss. We knew right then; as students, we had failed.
After a brief pause, he made a dash for the blackboard and scribbled the topic of inflation modelling on it; and so started the last lesson, the best he ever taught. He was back in his mode, brimming with passion and zeal. He formulated the entire model with finesse and ease, leaving us bewildered, as always. Time flew and, before we knew, he bade farewell, wishing us luck for future, and made a quiet exit. We felt guilty and embarrassed to have ended his teaching career on an awful note.
He was someone we admired secretly and looked up to with awe. We knew we were at loss, and had to make up to him. We pooled money to buy a farewell card and scrawled on it the following words: “Dear Sir, we may not have been the best class trained but we’ve learnt from you lessons that will stay with us for life. To our icon, our mentor, our source of inspiration, and idol — fare thee well!”
The writer is a freelance journalist.