“Ms. Hempel Chronicles”
“Ms. Hempel Chronicles,” a finalist for the Pen Vaulkner Award for Fiction in 2009 was written by Sarah Shun-Lien Bynum, a writer who graduated from Brown University and the University of Iowa Writer’s Workshop and now teaches writing and literature at Otis College of Art and Design in Los Angeles, California.
Beatrice Hempel or Ms. Hempel, the heroine of the novel is a 28-year old English teacher in her fifth year of instructing seventh graders and somewhat ambivalent about her chosen vocation. Although she displays bursts of integrity by promising “herself that she would decorate her classroom with photographs of great women writers,” she finds herself tired and frustrated because “taking attendance, enforcing detention, and making them love you, always seemed to come first” leaving little time left for teaching.”
Ms. Hempel does not dole out hours of homework because the less work she gives them, the less she has to do and also because she does “not believe in making children unhappy when so many already were.” Beatrice has a firm grasp of adolescence probably because she herself is not that far removed. Remembering the adolescent need to express, shock, take chances and blatantly advertise oneself, Ms. Hempel doesn’t overreact when her students display the same wanton behaviors. She, in fact understands better than anyone that “teaching is a form of extortion; you were forever trying to extract from your students something they didn’t want to part with; their attention, their labor, their trust.” Even so, Ms. Hempel is often too tired or ambivalent which leads her to believe she is not a very good teacher.
Being in her 20’s, Ms. Hempel is in the process of figuring out who she is as a person. She hasn’t let go of herself as a daughter and feels particularly hurt when her mother refuses to keep the bedroom in her family home as a shrine to her childhood. She misses her father who passed away and who always believed in her (even when her mediocre grades didn’t correlate with her high standardized scores) telling Beatrice she was “utterly unordinary.” Ms. Hempel would fall back on those words and his total faith in her abilities when people would criticize her noting that “remembering old criticisms is only fun once they have been proven laughably incorrect.”
The book is divided into eight chapters where Ms. Hempel’s childhood, adolescence, and young adult life are weaved in and out of her current life as a middle school teacher. Her experience as a teacher in a middle school allows her to see her fellow teachers as flawed beings whose lives are messier and more complicated than she ever imagined. And she wonders about her principal who has an uncanny ability to talk her into doing things she doesn’t want to do like teach History. And, there are also the parents of the students, her siblings, boyfriend, and career aspirations to consider and figure out.
Ms. Hempel is an American whose mother immigrated from China to the US and consequently struggles with the customs and culture handed down from her parents and the expectations of outsiders (who think she is Asian first, a teacher second, and Beatrice third) and what she should do (learn mandarin) based on her physical appearance. In contrast, she sees herself as Beatrice first, a potential novelist second, and a teacher third. She refuses to be “condemned to forever facilitate the dazzling achievements of someone else” and ponders whether she should write a novel remembering a quote by Flannery O’Connor: “Anyone who’s made it through childhood has enough material to last them until the day they die.” I suspect that is what Ms. Hempel has done.