8 December, 2021

LitStaff Pick: The Books That Remind Us of Our School Days

The Ms. Hempel ChroniclesMsHempelChronicles_hc
Sarah Shun-Lien Bynum

In Sarah Shun-Lien Bynum’s story “Yurt,” (collected in her book of linked stories, The Ms. Hempel Chronicles) the school year may be coming to a close, but young Ms. Hempel is on the verge of something new:

A year ago, Ms. Duffy, the fifth-grade English and history teacher, had come very close to losing it, what with her homeroom being right next to the construction site for the new computer lab, and her attempts to excise the Aztecs from the curriculum being thwarted, and her ill-advised affair with Mr. Polidori coming to an end.

The story is launched by Ms. Hempel’s Intrigue with the interesting life of Ms. Duffy, whose dispatches from places like Yemen cause her to reflect on her comparatively staid life. It’s a simple and beautifully written story, a portrait of what it’s like to be a young teacher who, like the lives of her young students, is still forming.

Mooney’s, the Irish bar, was just a few blocks away from the school. Beautiful Ms. Cruz, who really did lead the fabled double life of the librarian, had discovered it one night while careering through town with a free-jazz drummer nearly twice her age. It had been their last stop. What must Ms. Cruz have thought when they finally left the place, an hour before dawn, and she realized, looking up and down the avenue for a taxi, that she was just around the corner from her desk, her rubber stamps, her little stack of overdue notices? Maybe she thought, How perfect. To feel one’s real life rub up so closely, so carelessly, against one’s school life—there was no greater enchantment. Or so Ms. Hempel supposed, never having put enough distance between the two to experience it herself.

Bynum’s story may not be the expected one of a young, striving school teacher, but it illuminates her character through detail, showing us how, while helping her students navigate the uncertain road to adolescence, is navigating a good deal of her own uncertainty too.

—Lauren Alwan

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