La dernière classe

La dernière classe

Alex Fancy
1988 3M Teaching Fellow

e read Alphonse Daudet’s La Dernière Classe with Miss Olding, my grade eleven French teacher. In those days study of a French text meant wrestling it into submission, and into English, word by word and sentence by stubborn sentence. This laborious process of extracting English from foreign prose was de rigueur if we were to excel in the provincial examination and uphold the honour of our school. The previous year’s class had translated their way into second place in the entire province! The gauntlet was down, we beavered unlike any class before us, or so we were told, and under the baton of our unrelenting drill sergeant we crafted perfect translations.

But it is probably also to Miss Olding’s credit that I shared the anguish of the Alsatian school-master and his students who were having their last class before submitting to an invading foreign power. This spare and feisty woman somehow found time in the midst of all the deciphering to remind us that this was the story of real people, victims of the Franco-Prussian War who had suffered a humiliating attack on their cultural and personal space.

Thirty years later, and just a few days after an epic weekend of celebrating teaching and learning with my new friends from the 1988 cohort of 3M Teaching Fellows, I was in Alsace, helping a group of our students benefit from their junior year abroad, when word reached me of Miss Olding’s death.

Flash forward to December 3rd, 2004 and les dernilères classes of the semester in the small university where I teach.

9:30 a.m. French 3151 (L’Expressivité). I tell students that this course is about self-defense because it develops French expressive capacities and strategies, as well as building confidence in the performative self.

Twenty-three of twenty-five students were present. One of the two absentees had just had the baby she hoped would not appear until after the end of the semester. However, little Gabriel Alexandre, born to a woman re-discovering her Acadian heritage through re-connecting with the language, had other plans. On the previous day, the class had written their congratulations on a card containing greetings in phonetic symbols, a challenging segment of the course to which they had devoted considerable attention in order to better analyze accent variations, pronunciation faults and rhythm.

Playing off the current vogue of voting for the “ten best” of just about everything, I had asked the class to list, in order of preference and during discussion in small groups, their ten favourite expressions learned in this course which aims to give students the tools to negotiate their way through diverse exchanges. I had tabulated all the choices, and there was palpable excitement as the top ten expressions were revealed. Number two: un vieux schnock. Number one: superfantasmagorique.

Prior to the last class students had constructed a lexicon to support a particular interest, and had either written a dialogue or sketched an interview that featured terms from their lexicon. The co-management of the learning process extended to evaluation, as all students had completed a brief appréciation of their peers’ scripts and interpretations.

On the last day I gave each student a detailed narrative evaluation incorporating comments by their peers, and asked them to discuss these assessments with their original interlocuteur. We then had a full-group discussion of this project, which encouraged students to interpret a passion in their second language. We did not omit common difficulties and challenges remaining to be met as students worked towards achieving their full expressive potential.

Then we had a preliminary discussion of world, regional and local issues students would like to highlight in the subsequent course, L’Expressivité II. I encouraged them all to continue their study of French, and to call on me for advice, or to have a coffee, at any time in the future. The class finished five minutes early to give students time to say au revoir to each other before rushing off to other commitments.

10:30 a.m. French 3671 (Théâtre français contemporain). Students in this course had been invited to propose projets de création, rather than more conventional essay themes.

Three projects were presented on the final day, and were greeted by the usual applause, questions and suggestions for the final written version.

First, Sam shared her experience as stage manager for an all-night production of Sartre’s “existentialist melodrama,” Huis clos / No Exit. This Drama major outlined strategies used to ensure that actors and spectators experienced, on an aesthetic level, the engagement, or commitment, advocated by Sartre, and justified the approach through reference to Artaud’s case for the Theatre of Cruelty.

Then D’Arcy, a Fine Arts major, gave a PowerPoint presentation on animal imagery in contemporary French theatre, concluding with an original video featuring, from a comic perspective, fear of animals. This provoked a discussion of Cartesianism and the pseudo: rationality so decried by playwrights who saw the world from an absurdist perspective.

I had worked hard to hear, and honour, student voices while also ensuring a rigorous encounter with the richness and diversity of contemporary French theatre. Rachelle’s presentation, a rewriting of Anouilh’s Antigone from the perspective of the heroine, was a triumph of creativity as she gave back to this icon of resistance the voice that had been stifled by a male-dominated utilitarian society. We all marveled-not an overstatement-at how she had contrived, by dint of much concentration and hard work, to shape a lyrical voice which resonates with the original yet speaks to the children of a new millennium.

The vigorous applause for this final presentation also conveyed the pride of fourteen people (myself included) who had immense respect for each other’s commitment, imagination and capacity for hard work.

We finished with a brief sharing of a discovery or affirmation that had come about during the course. I will give the last word to Matt, a fourth-year History major whose projet de création had focused on the playwrights’ critique of individual and political complacency, with special reference to Clint Eastwood’s movie, High Plains Drifter: “J’ai compris que le théâtre peut être puissant, un appel à l’action.” Matt is from Miss Olding’s hometown. She would have been pleased.