Book Review – Ms Hempel Chronicles by Sarah Shun-Lien Bynum

Ms. Hempel doesn’t really like being a teacher. And she knows she’s not a very good one-choosing pop quizzes over essay assignments because quizzes are so much quicker to grade. Even better, grading quizzes can be done while watching TV.

She knows, too, that she panders to her middle-school students, wanting desperately for them to like her. She’s not above bribing with candy bars and early dismissals, and she’ll even laugh at their childish flatulence jokes in class.

It’s the obstacles to good teaching, to genuine intellectual labor, that depress her. Enforcing rules and instilling discipline mean that “often the period would end before any knowledge could be pursued.” And her own personal pursuit of knowledge? She is “just too tired, most of the time” to care about intellectual inquiry.

Worst of all, Ms. Hempel thinks, teaching has stagnated her imagination-her “utterly unordinary” creative potential as her father once referred to it. Now, after only a few years of reading too many topic sentences and straightening out too much bad grammar, her imagination has “begun to thicken and stink, like a scummy pond.” She believes she has lost her edge. No longer brilliant or talented or even interesting, Ms. Hempel, as one teacher puts it, is “affable.”

Yet for all the dislike of her job, Ms. Hempel loves her students. To her they are distinct and beautiful creatures, on the cusp of self-discovery. She wants to encourage their exploration and even accompany them on the journey.

There is troubled Jonathan, medicated, unpredictably violent and sometimes cruel, but who can crawl inside a book’s characters and love them for their frailties. There is wall-eyed Adelaide who peels off the day-glow stars from her bedroom ceiling, tapes them to her ballet costume, and dances in the school talent show. The flash of her parents’ camera make her “glisten like an amphibian” with her little pot belly and nubby breasts. Adelaide may not be a vision of loveliness on the outside, Ms. Hempel thinks, but she is on the inside “and soon the rest of her will catch up.”

Edward writes beautiful tales from the view point of his pet tarantula Jenny, who watches in hairy-legged envy as a household spider swings through the air weaving its gossamer web. Will Bean produces a radio play-based on his favorite books about a religious community of mice, moles and hedgehogs-in which he (Will) plays all the voices. Ms. Hempel, he insists, must play the entire tape during class.

And her students adore her. In their headlong and confused rush to explain themselves in class, they trip up, calling her “Mom.” They listen in rapt attention to her personal life, asking how she got engaged and who was her “best lover.” They remember her birthday. On a field trip to the beach, the girls “clustered about her…pressing [their cold hands] against her cheek. ‘See? ‘ they asked. ‘See how cold I am?'”

Yet Ms. Hempel is hardly the poor teacher she believes herself to be. On parent-teacher night, she talks about the impact Catcher in the Rye has upon her students:

Every time I teach Catcher I feel like I’m witnessing the most astonishing thing. It’s like they’ve stuck their finger in a socket and all their hair is standing on end. They’re completely electrified. What they’re responding to, I think, is the immediacy and authenticity of the narrator’s voice. And part of what makes Holden sound authentic to them is the language he uses. This book’s impact on them is just-immeasurable. Even the ones who don’t like to read, who don’t like English. It suddenly opens up to them all of literature’s possibilities. Its power to speak to their experiences…. Shouldn’t the seventh grade get the chance to feel that? That shock of recognition?

Even Ms. Hempel is stunned by her own eloquence. She seems surprised at her ability to lay claim to the beauty and power of literature-understanding her students, as well as how the books she chooses have the potential to help them learn who they are.

Author Shun-Lien Bynum writes smart, funny, insightful prose. She empowers her heroine to examine and comment on her inner self-her searching, disappointments, resentments, uncertainties, all of it. We also view aspects of her personal life when Ms. Hempel is known as Beatrice. Unfortunately, aside from Beatrice’s eccentric, supportive father, these parts of the novel falls short. They make us eager to get back to the classroom, the most fascinating parts of the novel, where we watch Ms. Hempel grapple with her career and her students.

At the novel’s end, which jumps ahead an unspecified number of years, Ms. Hempel meets a former student, now grown into a young adult. What she learns, and what we have suspected all along, is that her impact on her students far exceeded her expectations. She taught them facts and concepts and ways of thinking that have stayed with them for years.

Funny, you think you know yourself-your limitations and affect on others. But sometimes others know you better.