On a beautiful day in a village in nineteenth-century Alsace-Lorraine, a region of France, the young schoolboy Franz, is in a rush to get to class. He is particularly anxious because he has not learned the French grammar lesson he was assigned by his stern teacher, M. Hamel. Resisting the temptation to skip school and linger outdoors, where Prussian soldiers are drilling, Franz passes the town hall. There, he sees a crowd congregated around the bulletin-board. Something must be wrong: the Prussian forces occupying the region communicate their oppressive commands to the subjugated French villagers through the bulletin-board.
But Franz has no time to stop and check. He rushes on his way, finally arriving to find the school eerily free from the commotion that normally marks the beginning of the day. Blushing, Franz enters the classroom under the gaze of the students who have already assembled at their desks. To his surprise, M. Hamel teacher speaks to him kindly, simply telling him to take his seat.
Franz notices that his teacher is wearing a beautiful green coat and shirt—clothes for a special occasion—and that elder villagers have assembled at the back of the room. As Franz tries to make sense of it all, M. Hamel makes a shocking announcement: this will be the last lesson that he will give. From tomorrow onwards, the teaching of French will be banned, under orders of the Prussian authorities.
Franz, like everyone else in the room, is devastated. He realizes that this is the news that had been posted on the bulletin-board outside the town hall. The knowledge that he must stop learning his own language—which he has hardly begun to master—gives him a new appreciation for his education, and he regrets all the time he spent procrastinating on his school work.
The moment that Franz has dreaded arrives: he is called on by M. Hamel to recite the grammatical rule he was meant to learn. Franz stumbles and stammers. M. Hamel, rather than scolding Franz, uses the opportunity to lecture the gathered crowd on the evils of neglecting their education. It is this neglect, he says, that now allows the Prussian invaders to question the villagers’ French identity. How can the villagers claim to be French, he says, when they don’t even know their own language?
M. Hamel goes on to extol the beauties of the French language, telling the class that they must guard it carefully, for it is the key to their freedom. He explains the grammar lesson to the class, and Franz finds himself listening more intently than he ever has before. For the lesson in writing, M. Hamel has the class write out the words “France, Alsace,” over and over again. Everyone in the room applies themselves to the exercise with diligence and concentration.
The church-bell strikes twelve, and the trumpets of the Prussian soldiers sound, marking the end of their drilling exercises. It is the end of the last lesson. M. Hamel, pale, turns to the blackboard and writes in large letters, “Vive La France!” With a gesture of his hand, he dismisses the class.