To ma’am, with love

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.

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