In the first chapter of Ms. Hempel Chronicles by Sarah Shun-Lien Bynum, we meet our young protagonist, Beatrice Hempel. Ms. Hempel is a middle school teacher but by her own self-proclamation not a very good one.
The chapter is titled “Talents” and it takes place during a school talent show. This setting is very clever because it gives Bynum an organic opportunity to introduce characters one by one as they appear on stage. Also, by showing us the talents of the students and faculty, we also learn, by comparison, that Ms. Hempel, as she admits to a student, has zero talents herself.
Ms. Hempel is an interesting character, made up of many positive and negative qualities, though it seems she is only aware of the negative ones. That is the thing that really grabbed my attention as a reader. Her self-awareness and defeatist personality quirks are not simply part of her charm and likeability but it’s obvious they also serve as a sort of foreshadowing for things to come.
Ms. Hempel does not believe herself to be a good teacher. When one of her students described her as an “affable” teacher, Ms. Hempel “was moved, but knew that affable, while a vocabulary word, was not synonymous with good.” At one point, we learn that she became a teacher because of “tremendous opportunities for leisure and the satisfaction of doing something generous and worthwhile.” But after a few years teaching seventh graders she started to think of teaching as an “infection” as she realized “her students now inhabited her dreams, her privacy, her language.” Her decision to become a teacher, she believes was a “mistake” and she feels that in becoming a teacher she lost what was left of her “potential” and any talents she may have had.
Awkwardly self-aware (she worries about her teeth when smiling at parents and about her panty hose rolling down beneath her dress), insecure (she was happy sitting in a dark auditorium because it meant no one was watching her), lazy (she gives pop quizzes because they’re easy to grade), insecure (she bribes her students with chocolate) and immature (she wonders if she should laugh when students fart) are just some of her negative qualities. Ms. Hempel also seems depressed and lonely, and she even gets inappropriately excited when a popular male student touches her hand. At the same time, she loves her students and knows so much about each and every one of them. With so much depth, Ms. Hempel is more like a real person than a character.
I can already tell I’ll be able to use this book as a lesson on character creation and introduction. In chapter one, we’ve already met Ms. Hempel as well as numerous students and faculty members. Bynum does an exceptional job at smoothly introducing these characters and providing all the necessary detail about them both physically and emotionally without making it feel force-fed. She makes it seem so easy but as an aspiring novelist I know this is no small accomplishment. It takes knowing your characters truly and deeply, and it also takes patience. These are good lessons for a writing student like me.
Even with all the detail, descriptions and depth of characters, the story remains an easy read and the pace is fast and fluid. It’s told from an omnipotent point of view, something I personally tend to often dislike. But in this case it really worked for me. This all-knowing narrator tells Ms. Hempel’s story in such an engaging way that it made me feel like the story was being told directly to me, like I was a teacher or other faculty member, standing around the water cooler in the faculty break room listening to gossip about another teacher, Ms. Hempel. In that way, I felt like I, too, was part of the story.
I’m looking forward to reading more of Ms. Hempel’s story.