Ms. Hempel Chronicles

By SARAH SHUN-LIEN BYNUM

School, site of routine cruelties and uneven growth; snarky power plays and miniscule victories; awkward popularity contests and painful falls from grace, is perhaps such an ideal setting for literature because, like book-space, school-space stands in ambiguous relation to the world beyond its borders. Like any narrative, the school year’s arc compresses the social politics of the world beyond. Especially in the younger years, school has some of the qualities of a dream: summer evaporates it; fall reassembles it at new angles. Many, if not most, books about school capture the stumbling reality of coming of age as a student. Fewer venture into the more nettlesome territory of coming of age as a teacher.

This year, just in time for back to school season, a new book traces just such a teacher’s odyssey, as she makes her way in that most mystical, mundane, and painful of places: middle school. We spend the year with sweetly beleaguered, occasionally frowsy Ms. Hempel, a woman undergoing the transitions of the mid-to-late 20s — less visible than those of adolescence but no less powerful. Shun-Lien Bynum has already shown herself as a masterful conjurer of the off-kilter: Her first book, Madeleine Is Sleeping (a 2004 finalist for a National Book Award), twisted the dream journey of its eponymous heroine into a familiar story: In it, Madeleine’s dream becomes the occasion that assembles those fabled Parisian girls in two straight lines. Madeleine Is Sleeping was magically real — its characters were known to sprout wings. By contrast, Ms. Hempel Chronicles is free of surrealism, somnambulism, and anatomical modification, and takes place at a fairly recognizable type of private school. Nevertheless, Bynum manages to imbue middle school, an already an uneasy place, with topsy-turvy wonder.

This is partly because Bynum’s book torques the figure of the institution itself. Ms. Hempel wears her teacher role as a costume she feels baffled by. Lost in her own in-between land, she’s uncertain about where either her relationship or her life is going. Affable, likable — hair askew, chalk on her bosom — she pours out monologues sure to make any teacher (and many bureaucrats) smile: “That was what was so sad and difficult about teaching. Taking attendance, enforcing detention, making them love you, always seemed to come first. Often the period would end before any knowledge could be pursued.” Ms. Hempel does not want to assign piles of work, for fear of it coming back to her; she does not like debate for fear of having to correct her students; she lingers in the timeworn arena of the pop quiz, feeling comforted to realize that her students like quizzes, too: They are “everything that is reassuring about school; a line for your name; ten questions; blank spaces; extra credit at the end.”

In contrast, Ms. Hempel’s interior flights of whimsy demonstrate her grasp on less classifiable forms of knowledge: how she intuits, in a partial and yet powerful way, the fragile beings of her students, how her teacherliness makes her prone to the intimacies of the classroom. She sees — almost as a voyeur might — the hearts of those most vulnerable of humans: junior high school students. She sees them before they have time to amend themselves with adult guises. She often feels she sees too much: The girl who she imagines will grow up to be gay; the fake shyness of a blonde newcomer turned successful social ing?nue; the “sad-sack, misplacer of entire napsacks;” the “aspiring trapeze artist, lover of Marc Chagall.”

And although she is not dreaming, per se, Ms. Hempel experiences her job as a frequently hilarious lucid hallucination. At talent show, the eighth grade girls dance to a song about male erections. Ms. Hempel “felt herself go rigid with alarm; she was caught, again, in an awkward position: still young enough to decipher the lyrics, yet old enough to feel that a certain degree of outrage was required of her.” Trying to improve and correct seventh grade writing, Ms. Hempel wonders instead if seventh grade writing (and seventh grade itself) might not have instead infected her: “Really, victory was theirs; they had taken the castle and hung the flag from the turret?. She put e before i. She bought blue nail polish?she felt tenderly towards the same boys the girls singled out as crush-worthy.”

But Ms. Hempel, blue nail polish or no, is in the thick of her own transition, from one phase of youngish adulthood to a less youngish one. It’s not quite puberty, but it tugs on her. It begins with Ms. Hempel having stirring realizations that she may not want to go on teaching private school English, that she may be hungering for the world beyond the pop quiz: “And then it occurred to her: She was repeating the seventh grade, in fact for the fourth time, and she would still be repeating the seventh grade when Audrey and Kirsten and Travis were out in the world, doing things. Over and over again, the Jamestown settlers would complain of the mosquitoes, the tea chests would tumble into the harbor?. Every November, the war would be won; every September, Ms. Hempel would turn to the board, pick up the chalk, and write: First Assignment.

Later, it will seem to her that her structured annual path through the landmarks of sanctioned knowledge, on which she leads the middle schoolers, with their complex, “thrumming, radiant selves,” itself has receded into dream. Ms. Hempel, looking for a way out, eventually aims for the route she knows best: more school. Even as she goes, she’s aware of this path’s imperfections, its falsenesses. She has loved grading her quizzes in front of the television, because she, Ms. Hempel, has needed an escape from complexity. Beyond the world of her tests and lessons are people, shimmering through a world of uncertainty, suffering, full of minute joys, attempting to grow up. One of those people, she discovers, is herself.