Educating é is the autobiographical diary of a gutsy fifth-grade teacher, Esmé Raji Codell, who is so full of a lust for teaching and a love of children that no crumbling public school system or stagnant bureaucracy can get in her way. Her inner-city Chicago students face intimidating odds -- poverty, violence, gangs, miseducation, and a long line of adults who don't believe "these children" can ever amount to anything. Madame Esmé, however, is undaunted. Her diary reveals a woman with boundless zeal determined to be herself and to educate her children with every last drop of energy in her body. From a Zydeco Christmas pageant and a Multiplication Cha Cha to a Fairy Tale Festival complete with Frog Prince cupcakes and an Emperor's New Clothes Fashion Show, Madame Esmé creates an endless stream of whimsical (and educational) projects for her students to enjoy.
While one may not agree with her every teaching decision, it's impossible not to get a kick out of her verve and sassy attitude in the face of trouble. When her incompetent principal persists in calling her late at night, Madame Esmé handles the situation by returning his call at three o'clock in the morning, saying, "Oooh, did I wake you up? I'm so sorry. It's just that you called me so late. I knew you wouldn't call me so late if it wasn't terribly important" -- and has no further trouble with late calls. When another incompetent administrator moves a poster in Esmé's classroom, she responds in kind by marching into the woman's office and rearranging a plant. This woman, too, leaves her alone.
But Madamee Esmé is not just flip. When one of her boys and his mother need a place to stay because of a domestic violence problem, Esmé opens her own home to them. Another day, a student brings her two-year-old sister to school, so Esmé carries the child in her arms all day as she teaches, saying "What else could anyone do?" When a student is ashamed of the saris her mother wears, Madame Esmé dons one herself, and soon the girl and all her friends are wearing beautiful, silky saris to school. Yet no one ever seems to acknowledge her work, let alone thank her, and she is not even granted the graciousness of being left alone in her choice of names -- the principal persists in insisting she be called "Ms." Esmé. Despite the lack of support she receives, Madame Esmé devotes her entire life to her students, to the point where she has no time off and even her relationship with her boyfriend suffers.
Anyone who has been underappreciated or downright encumbered by a boss or bureaucracy will empathize with the story of Madame Esmé and be inspired by her ability to stick up for herself and her students with confidence. At the beginning of the school year, when some teachers tell her that her room is overstimulating, Madame Esmé responds to herself, "They are totally jealous because I have the most insanely beautiful classroom ever, of all time.... I feel sorry for any kid who's not in this room." She will not be put off, and she will not be toned down.
Teaching is hard work. In the public school system, teachers are cruelly overburdened. Dedication is overlooked. Innovation is scorned. Teachers like Esmé who take on the job with enthusiasm and love are precious to our society and our children. They deserve to be celebrated. In telling her own story, Esmé is honoring all teachers like her.
Read an Excerpt
After lunch each day I ready aloud to them. We push the desks out of the way, pull down the shades, and turn off all the lights, except for an antique Victorian desk lamp I have. It is a very cozy time.
I was reading them The Hundred Dresses by Eleanor Estes, about a Polish immigrant girl who is so poor that she wears the same dress to school every day but insists that she had a hundred dresses lined up in her closet. The girls tease her mercilessly until she moves away. Her antagonists discover that she really did have a hundred dresses...a hundred beautiful drawings of dresses. Oh, God, it took everything not to cry when I closed the book! I especially like that the story is told from the teaser's point of view.
Well, everything was quiet at the end, but then Ashworth asked if he could whisper something in my ear. He whispered, "I have to tell the class something," and discreetly showed me that he was missing half of a finger. It was a very macabre moment, but I didn't flinch.
I faced him toward the class and put my hands on his shoulders. He was trembling terribly. "Ashworth has something personal to share with you. I hope you will keep in mind The Hundred Dresses when he tells you."
"I...I only have nine and a half fingers," he choked. "Please don't tease me about it." He held up his hands.
The class hummed, impressed, then was silent as Ashworth shifted on his feet. Finally, Billy called out, "I'll kick the ass of anyone who makes fun of you!"
"Yeah, me too!" said Kirk.
"Yeah, Ash! You just tell us if anyone from another class messes with you, we'll beat their ass up and down!"
Yeah, yeah, yeah! The class became united in the spirit of ass-kicking. Ashworth sighed and smiled at me. The power of literature!
New girl, Esther, from Haiti. Dark, eyes darting, frightened. "She's got a record of fighting from her other school," Ms. Coil explained. Who asked her?
"Salut, mon amie!" I welcomed her. Her shoulders dropped, relaxed. Her smile is beautiful and full of mischief.
The Kids like something new I made: the Thinking Cap. It's an oversized hat made of prismatic gold paper, with a long prismatic paper tree coming out about two feet off the top. It says THINKING CAP in black press-on letters across the front. The kids have become very thoughtful since it's been introduced.
Shira is Filipino and speaks mostly Tagalog. Sometimes she goes into fetal position under her desk. She has four brothers, named Vincent I, Vincent II, Vincent III, Vincent IV.
Today Shira was crying because she felt Twanette took her pen. Twanette said no, it was her pen, she got it for 10 cents at Walgreen's. The pen looked more expensive than that, so I didn't really believe it. Plus, I know those kind are sold in sets. And finally, Shira had work in her notebook in that pink ink.
After school, Shira's stepfather came in and told me that Shira complained that Twanette took Shira's menstrual pad our of the garbage in the bathroom and showed it to the other girls.
Twanette also chews big wads of gum and took neon green glue she was not supposed to use and gooped up a whole table, almost ruining some expensive books.
So when I saw Twanette's mom had come to pick her up after school, I asked to talk with her. I started by telling her that Twanette has really been improving in completing her work and that I was proud of her efforts. Then I told her the rest, explaining that I hadn't actually seen the menstrual pad thing but that the father complained and we had to be extra sensitive because Shira had been only in the country only a couple of months and had trouble speaking up for herself.
Right about then, the mom started wonking Twanette over the head with a rolled-up magazine she was holding. She assured me that she would whip Twanette with a belt at home, adding apologetically that she usually whips Twanette every six months, but she's been behind schedule.
When I suggested that perhaps a belt would not be effective in changing Twanette's attitude, the mom assured me, "Twanette's attitude's gone change after this, believe you me, you won't have no more problems with this girl!"
Twanette was hysterical and denying everything. Mom called her a "big dork" and other things. It was very depressing, and I felt responsible. I acted very calm, but when they left I dry-heaved into the wastebasket. I felt like hell.
I hope Twanette doesn't shoot me tomorrow for telling on her.
Twanette didn't shoot me today. She wrote me a thank you not for saying something good about her to her mom. We also had the alphabet museum. Three kindergarten classes came through. It was a big success.
The kids keep journals. They can write in them during Free Reading if they choose. If they don't want me to read something, they put an E with a circle and a line through it at the top of the page, a symbol for "No Esmes allowed." I read them anyway, but I don't tell. I find out interesting things. For instance, Ashworth was upset all day because I wore pants, and I never wear pants. He thought his real teacher must have been abducted by aliens.
October 5, my birthday
Terrible thing. Somebody stole the Columbus comic book. I said, "Whoever did it, just put it back," but nobody did. So after school I took the whole library down and shoved it in the closet and locked it. The kids noticed right away the next morning.
"I told you if you stole from me, I'd take it all back. I'm not a liar."
"That's not fair," one girl complained. "We didn't all steal the book!"
"No, I'll tell you what's not fair. My working Saturdays so that you can read real literature and then having the books stolen from under my nose. That's really not fair. I only share with friends. I'm not going to leave my personal possessions out when I can't trust the people I'm with. Would you?"
Nobody answered. I passed out the reading textbooks. The children complained noisily. "You're getting what the rest of the school gets," I reminded them. "I don't see what's the problem."
The mood was grim for the rest of the day. I thought, They have good taste. They know this is boring.
But I'm worried. What if they never get the book back? Am I going to have to teach reading like this all year? I have to be consistent with my threat, or they will never believe me again. I'll have no discipline. I won't be able to teach anything.
God, Kid! Give me back the stupid book and let me teach you the best way I know how!
I'm so disappointed. It was a struggle not to cry in front of them.
Excerpted from Educating Esmé: Diary of a teacher's first year. Copyright (c) 1999. Reprinted with permission by Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill.