Unlike journalist, veterinarian and inventor of self-cleaning bathrooms, teacher was never on my short list of potential careers. For one, I don’t particularly like children, and I certainly don’t enjoy talking to people who are, by definition, stupider than me. One might argue that my undeniable lack of compassion for others wouldn’t have made for a very good teacher anyhow, but I like to think the choice was all mine.
So it’s always been with some degree of awe that I regard the teaching profession. That some people in this world are willing to get up at the crack of dawn to impart knowledge of algebra, American history or biology to generally unreceptive adolescents is enough for me to swallow; that still others actually enjoy this endeavor is almost outside my comprehension.
“Ms. Hempel Chronicles” documents the generally mundane adventures of one such brave soul: a young and relatively inexperienced English teacher. A blurb from the Washington Post refers to the book as a novel, but “Hempel” is really a collection of stories, many of which appeared on their own in various literary magazines. The themes and characters are the same throughout–indeed, these are the ties that bind the stories together–but the book is absent the sort of beginning/middle/end structure that I would typically consider necessary for noveldom.Similarly misleading (as was pointed out to me by a friend, who also read “Hempel”) is the book’s cover, which if taken literally, seems to indicate a woman 50 feet tall teaching a sea of students who are all the same height, dress like the Amish and have an unnatural affinity for clogs. Even figuratively, the cover’s message is off: For one, “Hempel” is set in modern times; one story even discusses Ms. Hempel’s unconscious adaptation of her students’ slang.
But more importantly, if there were ever a book devoted to showing how intimate teaching is, this would be it. “Hempel” isn’t about getting lost in the shuffle of academics (or a sea of poorly dressed peers); it’s about teachers growing attached to their students, getting to know them, valuing their thoughts, and even thinking about them after they’ve moved on. Indeed, in one story Ms. Hempel runs into a former student years after the girl has graduated. She remembers her name, her personality, her strengths and weaknesses. Were I asked to paint a cover-worthy picture of the book’s central conceit, it would be a classroom of 20-odd pre-teens, from the perspective of a teacher looking out at them. But rather than a crowd of sameness, each child would be distinct, special. This is because what I took away from “Hempel,” besides the fact that author Sarah Shun-Lien Bynum has a way of making the simplest language sound sophisticated, is that students can be memorable to teachers, the same way teachers can be memorable to students.
I’ve been searching for one adjective to sum up this book and the best I can come up with is elegant. It’s a simple story, told in clear but beautiful language. It’s not a page-turner, but neither is it dull. And for anyone who’s attended middle school, for anyone who can still name all of their teachers, for anyone who’s wondered how crucial years of their adolescence looked to those on the outside, this book is a poignant bit of nostalgia. “Hempel” is a snapshot of lives joined together for the better part of a year by book reports and hallway gossip, but that will nonetheless grow apart, develop separately and move forward in the decades to come. I may never have wanted to be a teacher, but I can appreciate the efforts of those whose job it is to know young adults before they really know themselves.
TITLE: “Ms. Hempel Chronicles”
AUTHOR: Sarah Shun-Lien Bynum
PAGES: 193 (in paperback)
ALSO WROTE: “Madeleine is Sleeping”
SORTA LIKE: “Special Topics in Calamity Physics” meets “No One Belongs Here More Than You“
FIRST LINE: “Many of Ms. Hempel’s students were performing in the show that evening, but to her own secret disappointment, she would not be appearing.”
PS: I have not yet finished “The Girl Who Played with Fire,” in part because I was thrice distracted by happy hours this week and mostly recently because I spent the better part of this afternoon cleaning my apartment and watching the subtitled Swedish film of “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.” Not that I’m making excuses. That said, it is far too cold out for me to do anything else today but read, so there’s hope yet.