Sunday, March 7

Considering Sarah Shun-Lien Bynum's "Ms. Hempel Chronicles"

Demetra's return to Nakuru after a month-long break in the States to attend med school interviews was a cause of celebration. Someone to share the load and the experience with were among the top, but close behind them was the delivery of a new supply of books. In the first six months I devoured most of the nine I had brought with twice. Throughout January, I sated my book lust with offerings of Austen and Doyle and Wodehouse through Project Gutenberg. I was just touch a desperate for some new blood. I finished Sarah Shun-Lien Bynum's Ms. Hempel Chronicles on the drive back from Nairobi.

Everyone in Chronicles is growing up. Everyone is searching for that maturity that will allow them to call themselves an adult and find some peace and place in the world but none have yet to find it. Not Ms. Hempel's seventh-grade class, not her kid sister and certainly not the titular Ms. Hempel. The seventh graders hardly understand their new bodies. Maggie Hempel is writing an essay for college that she doesn't particularly care for. Ms. Hempel has no idea what she wants, only some vague ideas of what should be avoided. The trades are an inappropriate profession for the middle-class. Affairs are wrong.

It's an difficult time. Growing up means taking responsibility. It means making decisions that will impact the rest of your life, decisions that have real consequences. It's an understandably self-indulgent and navel-gazing time, which is the difficulty with this fiction. The characters are irrpepressible whiners who cannot see beyond their own exaggerated issues to the real afflictions facing others. Caulfield couldn't stand the rest of society, and Ms. Hempel is so desperate for the affections of any that she isn't willing to stand up to her own students, allowing them to ask her about her sex life. "He grinned at her when he saw that she had pulled his crumpled paper from the pile. Whose the best lover you've ever had? ... But she found herself mysteriously touched, felt herself blushing in a pleasurable way."

In a novel, I feel, this sort of story is easier. There is a sustained narrative that allows one to trace the character's progression. They aren't always such self-absorbed punks. There are opportunities for growth. In Chronicles, though, where Ms. Hempel's path is carried through eight self-contained stories, she always starts in the same place, except for "Bump," set years after the others, and "Creep," set in her childhood. She is no different from the beginning of "Talent" to the beginning of "Satellite." She is still a hypocrite who demands her students explain the importance of history while remaining wholly oblivious to her own heritage. "Hunan? Szechuan? Were those provinces or just restaraunts?" She is still too lazy to write individual comments, "anecdotals," about her students. "'Is it okay for us to be reading this?' said Simon Grosse, who neede to ask permission for everything. Ms. Hempel would write Conscientious."

At its best, Chronicles finds the moments of transcendence available even to the weak. Rather than writing her students' anecdotals, Ms. Hempel assigns them to write their own in "Accomplice," in the tradition of Toby in This Boy's Life. It's a chance for the children to explain how they see themselves, worth far more than any SAT-level word Ms. Hempel might assign to them. In "Talent," the young magician pulls the mark's card from his back pocket after pulling the wrong card from the top of the pile. Failure is not the end. There is always that second try.

Chronicles is part of a long tradition of teaching novels and films. More often than not, it is a tradition which extols the dedicate, patient teachers who draw out the best in their students and allow them to succeed where others only expect failure. The stories of Jaime Escalante and Erin Gruwell make for some sentimental stuff, and Chronicles runs in absolutely the opposite direction. Early on, Ms. Hempel admits that she never wanted to be a teacher, and it's very clear that the profession has not grown on her in the least since becoming a part of it. This may be shocking to some. Teachers are supposed to love children. They are supposed to be developing with passion the young minds of the now and the leaders of tomorrow. It's a job that means something, that makes a real difference. Instead, Ms. Hempel imagines that slipping on a patch of ice on the way to school may put her into a body cast and keep her out of the classroom for a year, at least. "There was a way out, an honorable and dignified way out. All she had to do was undergo a terrible accident..."

I can sympathize with this. I may have only taught classes for the first month or two before we hired teachers for the center, but I have honestly dreamt of having malaria. At the very least, it would mean an iron-clad excuse not to work and avoid the kids, maybe some time to write or watch bootlegs in bed. At the very best, it would be that "honorable and dignified way out" from corrupt bureaucrats who will cut your electricity without looking for the paperwork you submitte, from chiefs who demand compensation before food can be shared with their people, from kids who refuse to eat the lunch you pay for at school because the portions are too small.

I'm past that now, it only took eight months, but I can understand the disgust Ms. Hempel feels when you only want out of something that everyone else will tell you is so necessary, so selfless, so good.

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