The Last Lesson of Mrs de Souza

The Last Lesson of Mrs de Souza

The Last Lesson of Mrs de Souza is the somewhat poignant tale of Singaporean teacher Rose de Souza, who recounts her last day as a school teacher before retirement. Cyril Wong’s short, elegant novel, published in 2013, peers into Singaporean school life, which can naturally be seen as a microcosm of Singaporean society.

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During her last class, Mrs de Souza decides to eschew her planned lesson and instead primly tells her students about a terrible incident, for which she was directly responsible, involving one of her former students. While she couches it all in very general terms to them, leaving out a lot of what she sees as being salacious detail, she tells the reader the full story. We won’t give anything away here, but it all relates to Singapore’s extreme conservatism.

Through Mrs de Souza’s reminiscences about her life, Wong not only critiques draconian Singaporean laws, he explores the question: Can we atone for mistakes? Was being a good teacher after her terrible error of judgement enough? The niggling feeling one has during Mrs de Souza’s account however is that she made a mistake that was obviously dreadful at the time; it’s hard to be empathetic towards her.

Yet she does at least examine the problematic nature of Singaporean conservatism. “Amir, we all live in a country where so many things get bottled up inside ourselves,” Mrs de Souza remembers telling Amir, the student she tells the boys about. “In fact, we’re regularly encouraged to keep our demons hidden. There’s still so much censorship here. There are so many things that we cannot say in public, as if saying such things would invite chaos into our society. We’re encouraged to be polite all the time, even when our politeness is usually not real and skin-deep at best.”

And yet: When she speaks to her students, Mrs de Souza is still far from frank in telling them about what happened. For us, this only contributed further to us not liking her very much. It’s her last day, for goodness’ sake! We were a bit disappointed she didn’t let it rip a little more dramatically.

As she recounts Amir’s story, Mrs de Souza also describes the life and death of her husband Christopher, who as a young teacher was beaten down by society’s rules and regulations himself. “… he would pepper his lessons with statements about how materialistic he felt the country was becoming, how education served no purpose other than to help students find menial jobs in a nation driven by the appearance of global relevance and economic success, how multiculturalism in this country was more about grudging tolerance than sincere and warm-hearted cohesiveness, how this little island was moving so far ahead of itself that it was forgetting the roots of its cultural heritages and diverse histories…. All this changed when a few students, as well as some teachers, complained about him to the school principal.”

Rose also looks back on the inadequacies of her own parents and how her miserable mother affected her own life. Through this, along with Christopher and Rose’s decision to not have children, and the terrible incident, the novel also explores the question of who should be a parent. What sort of responsibilities should parents versus teachers have when it comes to raising children? There could have been an opportunity to explore with more nuance the balance between the two.

The Last Lesson of Mrs de Souza is a quietly subversive book that allows the reader to get a sense of how repressed Singaporean society is. We found some of the dream sequences a little tiresome—okay, we are never a fan of recounting dreams—and the narrator somewhat unlikeable and far too prim, but her story nonetheless shows the terrible cost of a society that represses some aspects of life. We found Cheryl Tan's Sarong Party Girls a little more realistic and subversive—and far less prim—when it comes to recounting life in Singapore; we also liked the bigger picture of Jeremy Tiang's short story collection It Never Rains on National Day. Read all three for a well-rounded perspective on life in the city state and what it means to be Singaporean today.

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