As a child, Ms. Hempel (and her teachers) thought that she would grow up to become a famous writer, but here she is, grown up to be a very ordinary seventh grade teacher. Too inexperienced to feel terribly good at her job, too unsure of her career choice, but too dismayed by life to consider doing anything else.
Here are eight stories about her, from her sweetly naive and honest thoughts about her students (whom she feels she is letting down every day with her substandard teaching), to thoughts of her fiance, a forgettable classmate from her childhood with whom she has forged an amenable, if only tolerable, relationship.
So it sounds really negative, right? Not so much. I really enjoyed it. She aptly captures the innocence and earnest effort that I think most adults in their 20s pour into their jobs. Her characters complicated and lovable. Plus the writing is superb; Bynum was a finalist for the National Book Award for a previous work.
p. 11: "She was not a good teacher, yet teaching had rendered her unfit for everything else: She was not a good friend (she didn't return phone calls), nor a good lover (a student's smiling face would suddenly materialize before her, mid-coitus), nor a good citizen (she didn't have time to read up on the propositions before she went to vote). 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."
On talking about her two best friends from her own childhood --p. 58: "They served as each other's most passionate advocates: no one, in Beatrice's mind, was as intelligent and beautiful and kind and brave and talented as Kate and Greta. And Kate and Greta, in turn, would insist the same of Beatrice. It was puzzling, then, that together they had managed to collect such a number of men who seemed less alert to these qualities."