Ms. Hempel Chronicles

by Kathleen on May 20, 2011

I’ve been reading so much lately.  Trolling sites like She Writes and Book Slut for recommendations, browsing blogs and journals and shelves, logging interlibrary loan requests and finding a reader’s Christmas morning every time I approach the circulation desk.

It’s no surprise, then, that I can’t remember where I got the idea to read Ms. Hempel Chronicles.  I assumed a reference to Amy Hempel, whose In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson is Buried has haunted me since eleventh grade.  I despised Dr. Per Lee and was sure she returned the feeling, but she taught stories that changed me, that made me a writer.

I want to ask Sarah Shun-Lien Bynum about Amy Hempel, but I won’t.  I’ll assume that we share that eleventh-grade love, and the particular experience of fifth grade teacher turned writer.  There is something between us, for sure.  How else to explain the passages, scattered through otherwise unremarkable twists and turns, that reveal small, essential truths?

Like this, at the very end, as Ms. Hempel shifts, dreamlike, from teacher to mother:

But for now she was alone with the child she loved, walking farther down the hall, deeper into the silence, the strange glow ahead of them, the child slipping his hand into hers and she holding it lightly, the whole dream filling with her wish that their steps would grow slower, and the passage grow longer, so that they might never have to reach the place where they were supposed to arrive.

I’m walking that passage now, holding my daughter’s hand as we come to the end of kindergarten.  Ahead, public school glows strangely, some bright, severe place where [we don’t] really want to go. After the school visits and teacher conferences, the passionate coffee shop debates and quiet agony, I believe this is the right choice.  It’s the economical choice, and also the one consistent with my liberal values.  It promises involvement in the larger community, engagement with a more diverse peer group, and arrival in the solid world.  It means turning away from the place we are known and happy, trading a kiss in the cubby room for a wave at the bus stop, risking what feels like everything.

I don’t want it, but I’d read a thousand books for the aching understanding offered up here.