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BOOK REVIEW

The many lessons learned

Ms. Hempel Chronicles Stories Sarah Shun-Lien Bynum Harcourt: 194 pp., $23

September 21, 2008|Susan Salter Reynolds

Such A beautiful book is "Ms. Hempel Chronicles," the kind that gives its reader profound insights into ordinary, everyday life. The more such insights we have, the better able we are to really live, and not just go through the motions.

Beatrice Hempel is a young middle-school teacher, "still young enough to decipher the lyrics" of the songs her students listen to, but "old enough to feel that a certain degree of outrage was required of her." Beatrice, Ms. Hempel, is often uncertain of herself. She thinks she is a terrible teacher, but her students love her. The school bureaucracy makes teaching with any heart all but impossible.

She feels, every day, like the "object of ferocious scrutiny." Ms. Hempel is often overwhelmed by the raw energy of her students and by their enormous potential. She feels keenly the perils of summing up her charges in catchy phrases for report cards, or even worse, for grades. She feels invaded by them; they "inhabited her dreams, her privacy, her language." She worries. About sexual predators preying on them, about the youths' feelings and, mostly, about the future. She hates to think of them as grown-ups. But the hardest part about middle school, she thinks, is the "conviction that she spent her days among people at the age when they were most purely themselves. How could she not be depleted when she came home, having been exposed for hours, without protection, to all those thrumming, radiant selves? Here they were, just old enough to have discovered their souls, but not yet dulled by the ordinary act of survival."

"Ms. Hempel Chronicles" is a deeply affecting book because it reveals that human beings, because we are human, often feel many different emotions at once. We take on roles we are not always, strictly or bureaucratically speaking, qualified to perform. And yet, our vulnerability, our confusion often makes us infinitely more capable of empathizing with and relating to others.

In the end, Ms. Hempel leaves to go to graduate school. Years later, she sees an old student, Sophie, on the street, who lets on that the old schoolmates still talk about their teacher. " 'Incongruous.' You taught us that word," Sophie said. "I still use it all the time. . . . " "That's about the nicest thing anyone has ever told me," Beatrice replies. --

susan.reynolds@latimes.com

Susan Salter Reynolds is a Times staff writer.

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