Teaching the Seventh Grade
August 2, 2009 § 2 Comments
Just finished: Ms. Hempel Chronicles, by Sarah Shun-Lien Bynum.
Reading next: White-Jacket, by Herman Melville.
If I were to become a teacher, I’d want to teach the middle-school grades. Kids then are old enough to learn about and understand some pretty complex material, but are also still kids, often interested in and involved with childish things: imaginative worlds, toys, made-up games, sleepovers. They’re also on the verge of going to terrifying high school, and becoming adolescent: raging hormones, insecurities, mood swings, and cliques. It’s the perfect time to be opened up to the right book, the right band, the right friend. And maybe it’s just me, but I was most invested in my teacher in the seventh and eighth grades. I wanted guidance, I thought he was cool, I craved his approval.
Ms. Hempel Chronicles is the best book I’ve ever read about teaching, about being a teacher; but then, I’ve never been a teacher, so that doesn’t really say much. However, it’s also a great book about working in your twenties and trying to figure out what you’re meant to do and who you’re meant to be and how to do your job all at once. This I have experience with.
Ms. Hempel teaches middle-school English, and the book is suffused with the perfect tone of sweet melancholy to help you connect the dots: the overlooked sadness of childhood passing away, for both the seventh- and eighth-grade students and for Ms. Hempel, their young teacher. Passages in which Ms. Hempel, exhausted, grades papers and watches television, wishing she had the energy to do something creative instead, are spot-on: work taking over, youthful ambitions shunted aside.
And yet it’s not a sad book — or not only sad, anyway. The first story, “Talent,” is downright joyous (and probably my favorite); and so, in its way, is the last, “Bump.” It’s a slim little book, but it feels utterly full. Beatrice Hempel occupies its space perfectly, a fully realized unreal person.
As Beatrice realizes a few years into the job, one of its horrors is that she is constantly repeating the seventh grade. The students move on, while she’s left learning once again the level of history, the level of literature, that a seventh-grader can comprehend. And it is amazing to think of career teachers doing this over and over for decades.
(Spoilers ahead.) “Bump” is so fascinating in this respect, both because I didn’t see it coming and because it flips the whole book on its head. While the story itself is quite happy and upbeat — since we’re occupying Ms. Hempel’s headspace, and she herself appears to be happy and upbeat — there’s a real sadness, too. When Beatrice, now (I speculate) in her mid- to late-thirties, meets a former student, and hears how much she meant (still means) to this student and others with whom the student is still in touch, she is utterly overjoyed. And yet it’s so heartbreaking: she’s not doing it anymore. She’s left. And it really does seem to be the best for her. But I doubt, somehow, that it’s best for the kids she could’ve been teaching, could’ve been turning on to the right book, the right band, the right way to be in those difficult years of awkwardness. The tragedy of teaching, I suppose, at least in the U.S.