Saturday, April 2, 2011

A life of tender rue

My best friend is a schoolteacher and a big reader like me and we talk about books a lot. She recently read and recommended Ms. Hempel Chronicles by Sarah Shun-Lien Bynum. She didn't rave. She was in fact rather restrained. But she said that the main character is a teacher and that as a teacher she'd found it very well done. Since she knows that my mother was a schoolteacher too and that between the two of them, my mom and my friend, I've been deep in the lives of teachers my whole life and know something about the shape of those lives, she thought I too might enjoy this book.

I more than enjoyed it. It's divine. After reading it, I called my friend and told her I'd loved it and asked why she'd been so subdued in her recommendation. She said that she'd been unsure whether someone who's not herself a schoolteacher could appreciate the exquisite job Shun-Lien Bynum does. How well and truly she depicts the dailyness of a teacher's life. Which is exactly what this talented young writer achieves. But what I found more miraculous is how she evokes a teacher's consciousness as she moves through her life, during and outside the school day. For teaching, I think, more than any other job, defines, consumes, is the worker. I work as a secretary but a secretary is not who I am. A teacher is who my friend is, and who my mother was, awake and asleep, winter and summer, teaching or sleeping or grocery shopping. This teacher-ness is conveyed beautifully in the linked stories that make up Ms. Hempel Chronicles.

As a communist reader, I often lament the dearth of books that focus on characters at work, that is, characters as workers. For most of us spend most of our waking hours at work. Work takes up the biggest chunk of our lives. Why don't more books delve into this? Yeah yeah we all know why; see almost every post on this blog ranting against bourgeois culture. Here we have a fine counter to my lament. I don't know whether the author herself would see it this way--that this is a book about a worker, in some sense the ur-worker in terms of how much of the worker's life is spent at work, for teachers spend more hours per day and per week working than any other worker I know of, this is one of the secrets that only teachers and those who share their lives know, the long long day at school and then the nightly and weekendlong work grading papers,  writing report cards and so on--but to me this is a big part of Shun-Lien Bynum's accomplishment. This portrayal of what life is like for the workers known as teachers. (Note to the governors of Wisconsin, Ohio, New York, California, the billionaire mayor of New York, and every other politician currently trying to whip up public opinion against teachers so they can keep paying the banks our billions of dollars in tax money instead of a living wage to these most important workers: fuck you, you scum of the earth pigs from hell who've never done a real day's work in your lives!) 

It's not only the work itself that comes through in these pages. It's the joy, the pain, the tender rue, unique to the teacher's life I believe. One thread throughout these Chronicles is Ms. Hempel's chronic sense of underachievement, her feeling that she's somehow missed the main event of her own life and is doomed instead to forever usher others forth toward theirs. This is the teacher's own version of that horrid vicious anti-worker sexist old saw, "Those who can, do; those who can't, teach." There's no truth to that nasty saying, the inverse is in fact true, that teaching is a special talent, a calling, even, that very few have or can ever hope to master. Still, I think (based on my second-hand experience of two teachers' lives) that many teachers, even (as in the case of my friend and my mom) superbly gifted and universally beloved teachers, wrestle with this demon in their own psychic life, a nagging gnawing refrain of what-ifs, what if I'd gone to medical school instead of teaching junior-high science, what if I'd written that novel instead of teaching high-school English, what if I'd become a cartographer instead of teaching fifth-grade geography, a mathematician instead of teaching fractions to third graders. Ms. Hempel Chronicles reminds me in some ways of the superb Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout. The two books both have a schoolteacher main character. They share a linked-stories structure. But where Strout's book was full of ragged painful rage and regret, in Beatrice Hempel we have a more subtle gentle thread running through the pages, the bittersweet love-hate relationship teachers have with their work, their lives.

Which leads me, finally, to my ambivalence about this book's end. (Spoiler alert: stop here if you'd rather read the stories without knowing their destination.) I was saddened, and initially disappointed, to discover in the last piece that Ms. Hempel had left teaching. Oh no, oh damn, I thought. Why not let her work her life away at this hardest, most frustrating and most rewarding of all jobs? Like my mother did, like my best friend is doing as she counts down toward retirement, like so many do, for so little recompense monetary or otherwise, for the love of it when you come down to it, trite though that sounds. I felt let down. Betrayed, even, although that's probably putting it too strongly. On reflection, however, I'm satisfied. Partly because this too is the truth: that many many young teachers leave, especially nowadays faced as they are with the disgusting reactionary regime of forced testing, rigid curricula, ever expanding work loads and class sizes. And I realized, okay, I can accept that this particular teacher's story ends thus. The other reason I came to terms with Ms. Hempel no longer being a teacher is that in this last story she runs into a former student and, through their conversation and her swirling memories and feelings, she and we see her as her students saw her, see how important she was to them, how good she was at what she did, which she never really knew. So there is a note of another kind of rue at the book's close--unless I'm reading too much into it, me with my oversized regard for teachers colored by my love of my best friend and my mother--another sort of what if. What if she'd stayed? What other lives might she have helped shape? It made me wish Ms. Hempel had had a chance to get a pep talk from my mom or my friend, champion complainers about the horrors of their lives as teachers the both of them, but both of them chained to it by true love for their true calling. Maybe these real-life teachers could have persuaded this fictional one to stick it out. Maybe not. This is the hypothetical the end left me musing on, and I can live with that.