A Teacher's Legacy
Given today's critical climate in education, one welcomes the occasional tribute to a teacher. That is why the recent revival of interest in the writings of French Nobel laureate Albert Camus should come as welcome news to classroom teachers. One could argue that, in the history of the field, few teacher-pupil relationships have had more dramatic impact than that of Louis Germain on his young pupil Albert Camus.
Camus' work as a novelist, playwright, and philosopher has been part of the Western canon for over half a century. The Stranger is one of the most widely read novels of our time, and his philosophical essays The Rebel and The Myth of Sisyphus continue to be read.
With the 1995 publication of The First Man, Camus' unfinished autobiographical novel, the French master reveals, years after his death, the debt he owed to his public elementary school teacher. Camus' daughters decided to publish The First Man in a belief that it "would be of exceptional value to those interested in Camus' life."
We are apprised in the forward that "once you have read The First Man you will understand why the appendix includes the letter Albert Camus wrote to his teacher, Louis Germain, after receiving the Nobel Prize, and the last letter Louis Germain wrote to him." Little is known about Louis Germain save for the warm portrait of him in The First Man.
This autobiographical novel recounts the classic story of a poor boy who made good. Camus was born and raised in Algeria in a female-headed household. His father died in World War I, when Camus was no more than a year old. His mother was partially deaf, his uncle totally so, and his grandmother dominated a household that also included Albert's slightly older brother. The parental figures could neither read nor write. The grandmother's intention was that the young Camus would help relieve the family's bitter poverty by apprenticing to a local tradesman.
But Camus was precocious, and school became a sanctuary for him where he could "escape family life." What he and his classmates "so passionately loved in school," according to the book, "was that they were not at home, where want and ignorance made life harder and more bleak."
Camus became his teacher's pet. And Louis Germain's influence on the boy was crucial in switching the tracks of his prescribed destiny. It is a familiar story which I have found repeated often in my investigations of educating poor children. The teacher often becomes the main actor, rather than the parents.
Here is what Albert Camus, fresh from his speech in Stockholm accepting the Nobel Prize for Literature, had to say to his former teacher:
Dear Monsieur Germain,
I let the commotion around me these days subside a bit before speaking to you from the bottom of my heart. I have just been given far too great an honor, one I neither sought nor solicited. But when I heard the news, my first thought, after my mother, was of you. Without you, without the affectionate hand you extended to the small poor child that I was, without your teaching, and your example, none of all this would have happened. I don't make too much of this sort of honor. But at least it gives me an opportunity to tell you what you have been and still are for me, and to assure you that your efforts, your work, and the generous heart you put into it still live in one of your little schoolboys who, despite the years, has never stopped being your grateful pupil. I embrace you with all my heart.
A copy of this letter should be kept in every teacher's desk.
Maurice R. Berube is an Eminent Scholar of Education at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Va. His most recent book is American School Reform: Progressive, Equity, and Excellence Movements 1883-1993 (1994).