Rebecca Goethe DeVries
I present to you M. Besançon. Even after all these years I see him very clearly. He is Basque, of dark complexion. He is not big but rather round with bushy hair, bushy eyebrows and a very black beard. This beard, cut to a point, is a barometer of his good or his bad humor. When he is angry this beard rises up and he makes me think of the devil. He wears always, even when it is hot, a pillbox hat of black velvet called a calotte which he throws to express his anger and his indignation when we are his anes (donkeys). And we are often.
He has from thirty to forty students from five to thirteen years old. He also starts the fire and keeps the school clean. To help him in this work, he chooses several students. To teach the letters to the little ones, he receives the help of monitors. It is a great honor to be chosen and since I was eleven years old I have had this honor. I think that it is marvelous to be in front of a group of young children to open to them the door of reading.
We have beautiful charts, well illustrated, and with my stick I point to the syllables and the children repeat after me, “Ba, Be, Bi, Bo, Bu, etc. ‘‘ For most of us, M. Besançon and the primary school will be all that we receive as instruction. Some will go further, but almost all of the peasant boys and girls will be apprenticed or in service in the surrounding farms. For the boys, after the military service, will come marriage and work, and, voilà, that will be their life, a good life after all.
M. Besançon knows well what our life will be. He wishes, while we are under his tutelage, to give us all that he can so that we understand what has value, what will help us to choose the good way. He uses all his eloquence and if that does not suffice, he does not hesitate to hit us with a long flexible stick which he carries always under his right arm. He has us read in a group and individually. “Expression! Expression!’’ he tells us. “What is this braying?’’ Enraged with our stupidity, he throws on the ground his calotte.
However, if we show the least desire to learn, he takes much trouble to help us. He loans us books, with the order not to dirty them. He encourages us to continue to study even when we must leave school. He conducts for those who desire it school in the evening. But that which M. Besançon wants especially to instill in us is character, thought and pride in ourselves, pride in being French, even more than that, pride in belonging to the world.
In our public school, naturally we do not receive religious instruction but every morning, before beginning the lessons, he gives us a lecture on “la morale.’’ We learn by heart passages from choice parts of many writers. He speaks to us of the philosophers, of the liberators of the spirit. I hear his sonorous voice penetrating our souls as he quotes, “L’homme n’est qu’un roseau, le plus faible de la nature mais c’est un roseau pensant. Man is only a reed, the weakest of all nature, but he is a thinking reed. Nature can kill him, but he knows that which kills him. He is then superior to nature.’’ “ You see,’’ he tells us, “that means that no one can enslave you. No one can force you to think as they do. You can read, you can think, thus you are free.’’ He speaks to us of those who have worked and suffered for freedom, by their arms or by their pens.
Following the lecture about “la morale’’, we, the little peasants of Moiry, we sit up a little straighter. We are as big as thought. He presents to us the thoughts of Pascal, of Descartes, the liberal protestations of Voltaire and Rousseau. I cannot say that I remember M. Besançon with affection. I was too afraid of him for that, but he gave me something precious, good for all my life.
Translation and copyright: Lucy DeVries Duffy, June 17, 2009, Brewster, MA, 02631, USA