Ordinary Transformations: Ms. Hempel Chronicles

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Living as they did, at the top of the house, Beatrice and her brother were surrounded by trees. In the summer, their rooms filled with a green light. In the winter, the fir boughs grew heavy with snow and brushed against their windowpanes. Because they lived in rooms meant only for servants, their windows were small and perfectly square, not long and grand like those in the rest of the house. But they preferred it this way; they liked living in their tiny rooms, aloft in the trees; they liked the green light falling in squares at their feet. Their rooms were almost the same, but not quite: Calvin had a fireplace in his, and Beatrice had a wall of bookshelves built into hers.

Sarah Shun-Lien Bynum, Ms. Hempel Chronicles

I’m lucky enough to have the occasional Wednesday off. Sometimes it’s used for errands or appointments, but on a recent mid-week reprieve, I woke to a quiet apartment and crawled into my new reading chair, bathed in buttery sunlight, and revisited a book I’ve read and loved before. I was struck by the passage abovethe feeling of childhood comfort and make believe in a private world up in the trees. I felt like I was stepping into my own little lofty room away up in the eaves, even though I’m really in a first-floor apartment. On that recent quiet Wednesdaywhich I reminisce about now knowing I won’t have another one for a good little chunk of timemy space was as peaceful as any hideaway.

editedfullnookHaving recently left my twenties behind and just barely entered my thirties, there was no better moment to reread this book. Beatrice Hempel is a middle school English teacher in her late twenties when we meet her, and this period of her life unifies the book, providing points of entry into her past and future. Rather than a strict chronology, the book is structured as a series of narrative glimpses into various stages of Ms. Hempel’s development.

Yet we never really get past an indeterminate point in her thirties, and don’t go much further back than her teens. That’s one of the things I love about this bookit portrays a slice of life that seems, from my vantage point, heady with identity formation. Ms. Hempel occupies the awkward years seldom spoken of as such, when one is outwardly an adult, but not old enough to have fully left youth culture behind.

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In the book’s first chapter, Ms. Hempel sits in the middle school auditorium watching a talent show, wondering how to react to the risqué rap lyrics (I feel a poke coming through …) accompanying a dance routine. She is “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.” The moment is typical of Ms. Hempel: She is capable of compelling insights while remaining fairly clueless about how to respond to them. She senses that her position is delicate, placed at an instrumental point not only in her life but in the lives of her students. And though she often wins over her students, just as often, she feels a sense of unease about her own legitimacy as a teacher.

The book is filled not only with her own dynamic memories, but with her affection for the quirky, innocent troublemakersfrom ebulliently confident Harriet Reznik to dark-and-stormy Jonathan Hamishwho color her days. Still, it’s Ms. Hempel’s personality that carries the book throughher ability to slip into a fantasy world while riding a school bus, or to view her fiancé’s sexual kink with a wryness tempered by a longing for romance. Bynum combines humorous realism with an almost Victorian whimsy, and it’s a pairing I find endlessly appealing.

When I first read this book, just a year or two ago, I wrote that “reading this book in my late twenties was like reading The Catcher in the Rye when I was 13. Perfect timing.” Which leads to my next question: Do certain books mark certain times in your own life? Which books do you find yourself rereading, and how have your tastes changed (or stayed the same) over the years?

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