The Teacher's Life Lessons

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By Carolyn See,
who can be reached at
Friday, September 5, 2008


By Sarah Shun-Lien Bynum

Harcourt. 193 pp. $23

It just shows what context can do. Part of "Ms. Hempel Chronicles" was recently published in the New Yorker, in the issue with the infamous Obama cover. For me, I guess, that cover stained the contents of the magazine like ink in milk. I confess I found the excerpt to be smirky, supercilious, superior to its characters -- detestable, in fact.

But when I opened this utterly charming novel, I fell in love with it, as one is meant to. (It must have taken me half an hour to realize that the excerpt I had read was part of this larger work.)

Ms. Hempel teaches in middle school, and she's crazy about her students. It's easy to see why: They're vulnerable, darling, gentle souls just beginning to learn to occupy their fleshly selves. On the very first page, one of her seventh-graders attempts to describe the ballet solo she'll be performing in this evening's talent show. " 'Just imagine!' she said to Ms. Hempel, and clapped her hands rapturously against her thighs, as though her shorts had caught fire. The bodies of Ms. Hempel's students often did that: fly off in strange directions, seemingly of their own accord." It's true, that's what junior high kids do. For the reader it's like going off to the South of France and seeing that van Gogh didn't make that stuff up; it really does look like that. It just took an artist to be able to see it.

So Ms. Hempel presides over this flock of gangly, excitable, touching goofballs, including a morose little boy who, on a beach field trip on a raw, cold day, allows himself to be buried in sand and comes perilously close to being buried alive. And she runs a club of minority children who meet together glumly on Affinity Day and complain that Mr. Meachum, the white history teacher, thinks that the past is made up only of white history. Which is how we learn that Ms. Hempel is of mixed blood: Her father has the standard Caucasian Scotch-Irish-etc. mix going on, but her mother is Chinese. Her beloved dad died only a couple of years before, and Ms. Hempel is in her own kind of "middle school." She must make the transition from unformed adolescent -- her father's favorite child -- to something approximating a grown-up.

She herself is aware of this. She's still young enough to understand the lyrics of the eye-poppingly explicit songs her students listen to. She herself, in high school, was an extreme Goth, with piercings and dye jobs, who idolized the heaviest of metal garage bands (or kids just out of someone's garage). She keeps all the memorabilia of this era in her old room at home; her mother asks her sardonically if she intends turning it into a shrine. Actually, she would like to. She hates giving up her youth, when she was adored by her perfect dad.

But she's going through the motions. She has her own apartment, her own fiance. She's already had her very own wedding shower. (Her two best friends gave her a pair of crotchless underwear.) She's doing her best to fake her way into the adult community. She takes risks: She assigns Tobias Wolff's "This Boy's Life" to her seventh-graders, and when a proverbial pill of a mother objects to the strong language on Parents' Night, Ms. Hempel stands up for truth and authenticity in literature and, unexpectedly, wins the day. And she goes off on Friday afternoons with some of the younger teachers to an Irish bar (this scene was the New Yorker excerpt), where they drink and dance the end of the workweek away. Somewhere in all that, she ends up in the men's room, kissing a colleague. How did that happen?

We hear about her family: her sweet brother, who used to love to dress up like a cat burglar in his mother's old leotard and slither across the floor pretending to be invisible, and her younger sister, who, through tricks of chronology and genetics, identifies completely with their Chinese mom. How will Ms. Hempel turn out? And how will her students, upon whom she lavishes so much aching, embarrassing love, make their way in the hard, wide world? The author assures us, with teacherly authority, that we'll all make it through middle school, which, after all, is just another metaphor for life.

Sunday in Book World

ยท Thomas Friedman's environmental manifesto.

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