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A Breath of Fresh Air

Lately there is a miasma of stress that hovers in the halls of my school and community. In a high speculative and very expensive real estate market, property values have dropped precipitously, leaving more than a few mortgaged folks with a negative value. The stagnant building industry and retail market will leave some of our students' families without work. Property taxes are our primary funding source for education, so we are looking at draconian cuts on top of last year’s merely drastic cuts.

As a suburb of Washington, we live in the shadow of the Capitol and the Pentagon. Election years mean potential life changes for some families. Deployment is always just around the corner in other homes. Middle school is tough enough without adult pressures oozing into the halls to mix with the homework, hormones and heartaches of early adolescence. Thirteen year olds alternate between worrying about their interim reports and making the team, and wondering where they'll live and whether their parents will be around.

This weekend I needed a break. Friday afternoon I left the papers on my desk, knowing they could wait since Monday was an in-service day. I spent Saturday morning digging in my yard rather than grading. Then, pleasantly weary, I did not read the book that I received as “homework” from a Central Office committee. But while I did avoid work, I couldn’t quite put school behind me. Instead, I spent my weekend with a new young teacher friend, Ms. Hempel.

She had chosen teaching because it seemed to offer both tremendous opportunities for leisure and the satisfaction of doing something generous and worthwhile. Too late she realized her mistake; teaching had invaded her like a mild but inexorable infection; her students now inhabited her dreams, her privacy, her language.

Ms. Hempel is not quite real, but within a few pages, I knew that she was more than a character in a novel. Sarah Shun-Lien Bynum’s Ms. Hempel Chronicles is not quite fiction, not quite a collection of short stories, and not quite a series of essays on teaching and learning in the middle school environment. It is a compilation of all of these. Bynum builds her story on her own experiences teaching seventh grade at the Berkeley Carroll School in Brooklyn.

Ms. Hempel can touch her students’ lives because she has not lost touch with her own experience of being thirteen. Because she recalls with clarity her own adolescent misconstructed efforts to deal with an adult world, she cuts through the pseudo- sophistication of her students. “Haven’t you heard,” she asks her eighth graders, “about the clowns? Who kidnap you? Who drive around in vans?” Only someone who vividly remembers her own adolescence and the confusion of dangling between childhood and adulthood understands that worldly eighth graders can still be unsure whether there might really be a van full of clowns gone bad, lurking just around the corner.

I am sorry to tell you that Ms. Hempel doesn’t stay in the middle school classroom. Like so many fine teachers, she leaves. And though it’s not stated, it would appear that she leaves during those first five years when so many teachers walk away. Author Bynum left the K12 classroom herself. In addition to being an author, she now teaches at the University of California, San Diego.

Unlike Ms. Hempel and Ms. Bynum, I’ve stayed in middle school for 20 years now. I am teaching the children of my former students. It keeps me young, but it also wears me out. There are days when I contemplate what I might accomplish as an educator beyond the middle school classroom. And there are days when I just wonder if there isn’t a nice job in an insurance office that would be a lot easier. But most of the time, I love what I do. Bynum puts it this way:

This was the feeling that Ms.Hempel couldn’t shake: 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 of 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, not yet practiced at dissembling.

Tomorrow I’ll go back in my classroom. I will be immersed in the egocentricity of adolescence for four hours before I can catch my breath. I'll come up, scurry to the office, scarf down a sandwich, and plunge back in for another two hours. Sometimes I question how long I can keep up the pace. Still, the weekend with Ms. Hempel reminded me that though it can knock the wind out of you, middle school can leave you breathless with wonder.

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