David Herbert Lawrence was an English novelist, poet and playwright. In 1908 Lawrence qualified as a teacher and found employment at Davidson Road School in Croydon. According to the author of D. H. Lawrence: The Life of an Outsider (2005): “He found the demands of teaching in a large school in a poor area very different from those at Eastwood under a protective headmaster. Nevertheless he established himself as an energetic teacher, ready to use new teaching methods like performing the Shakespearean dramas they had as text. Best of School” and “Last Lesson of the Afternoon” are two poems about his experiences as a teacher. Quite extraordinarily, they present two completely contrasting views. “Best of School” is about the pleasure a teacher experiences while partaking his duties as a teacher, while “Last Lesson” speaks about the unpleasant task of teaching. “Best of School” begins with an image of the “boys and the room in a colourless gloom of underwater float”. The poet compares the boys working in a classroom to an underwater scene. Their ideas and thoughts are like “bright ripples”.
Their ideas are defined as “bright” because they are young boys and full of creativity and innovation. These boys’ heads are ‘busily bowed” in pursuit of knowledge, they are completely blind to the outside world. The teacher separates himself from the boys as a passive spectator sitting “on the shores of the class”. The pupils require no external help from him; they are a single entity, united in their pursuit of knowledge. They tend to look up to him from time to time to gain morsels of inspiration for their work and then carry on working busily. Having got what was to be had”, he stresses the fact that he does not actively take part in the children’s learning process, it is natural and voluntary. The “ripening morning” echoes the ripening thoughts of the young boys and in the “sunlight” reflects the light of knowledge and intellect. “Last Lesson”, on the other hand is an exact opposite view. It begins with an image of weariness and disgust, the teacher begins by conceding defeat. Both the students and the teacher are being forced to sit in the classroom, waiting for the bell to ring.
He says “I can haul them and urge them no more”. The teacher is experiencing great despair by having to sit in the classroom with his “pack of unruly hounds”, who are straining to be free. There is a sense of utter frustration; neither is the teacher interested in teaching and nor are the boys interested in gaining knowledge. The teacher can “no longer endure the brunt” of teaching a mass of uninterested children. The speaker in “Best of School” goes on to say that the boys are “like birds that steal and flee”.
The boys raise their heads from time to time for getting the discipline necessary for concentration; the very presence of the teacher is an unspoken motivation for the students. He compares the glances of the students to the movement of tiny birds. “Touch after touch I feel on me”, he can almost feel the bright, inspired eyes of the students looking up to him for inspiration. He calls this inspiration “grain/Of rigour” that “they taste delightedly. ” In complete contrast, the teacher in “Last Lesson” calls his students’ work “insults of blotted pages” and “slovenly work”. It is a sharp negative feeling that he expresses.
He turns to the pile of sickly books on his desk and exclaims that it is impossible for him to plough through his corrections. To him it is a Herculean task, it is tedious and tiresome. The students are not interested in learning so the work seems to be a vivid insult to the teacher. He asks himself in desperation “shall I take/ My last dear fuel of life to heap on my soul? ” and ascertains, “I will not! ”, “I will not waste my soul and my strength for this. ” He realizes that it is a complete waste of both his time and energy to try to discipline his students and take them on a path to knowledge.
He declares that he no longer cares how his students will fair because his students are so disinterested that both the teaching and their apparent learning, “goes down the same abyss”, down a deep dark hole of forgetfulness and oblivion. He continues the argument deliberately reducing the scope of education to inconsequential things like “A description of a dog” and saying that all his efforts are going to waste because his students are completely frustrated and not at all enthusiastic about learning. The larger picture of holistic education is lost due to their unwillingness to learn but the teacher also deviously justifies his argument.
He says that the whole situation is rubbish and that nobody cares so there’s no point in this unnecessary pursuit. His final analogy in “Best of School” is probably the strongest and most beautiful one. The minds of his young pupils are like the “tendrils that reach out yearningly”. The young enthusiastic minds cling to the teacher for support. It is merely for inspiration and not learning. The teacher (tree) is wise, tall and firm. The students need the support and guidance of the teacher like a silent and strong beam of enlightenment on which they can fall back in times of trial.
The teacher and student relationship is shown to be a beautiful one. The teacher is sitting at a distance but feels his students “clinging” to him. This is not an actual dependence for notes and explanation but it is spiritual and emotional, self-motivational. A stout and sturdy tree covered in tendrils seems to be covered in a green coat. Their lives are closely entwined and they grow together. The speaker says, “my time/Is hidden in theirs, their thrills are mine. ” It is a delightfully rewarding experience for him to be able to contribute to the student’s spiritual growth and enlightenment in an unobtrusive way.
The two poems, as mentioned earlier, present complete contrasts to each other. While the speaker in the “Last Lesson of the Afternoon” is tired of teaching and disturbed by just being in the classroom, the speaker/teacher in “Best of School” enjoys a fresh look at his job. Education is believed to be an individual process. Each one learns at their own pace and in their own way. When pupils find pleasure in learning by themselves, the process of teaching becomes an extremely rewarding one for the teacher. When the student is motivated, education is most worthwhile.
The teacher believes that the pupils should make the journey on their own as only then will the journey be meaningful. It is surprising that whereas in one poem the teacher delights himself by inspiring his students, in the other the teacher is under a terrific compulsion to sit and wait for the bell before he can rush out of class. These two poems, present together, a great insight into the two perspectives of gaining education and knowledge. One is a tiresome, hauling process while the other demands independence and free thinking.