“Educating Esme” by Esme Raji Codell
The near-ridiculous conditions of the Chicago Public School system have been front and center these past few weeks as the teachers went on strike for a variety of reasons — Pay, sure, but also things like standardized testing, schools without air-conditioning (FYI Chicago’s prisons have A.C.) and schools without counselors, nurses, and librarians.
“Educating Esme” is a remarkable, candid, honest, and unflinching look at a young teacher’s first year in the classroom of a brand new CPS school. Hired to help build the school, it’s soon apparent that she’s working for a buffoon of a principal who has hired mostly young attractive women to teach, and has seriously screwed up priorities. Still, thanks to her quirky teaching techniques, her belief in her kids’ abilities, and her tough love, she gets through to her fifth grade students. She builds them a “time machine” out of a refrigerator box and books. She deals with a particularly punk-ass kid by making him teach for a whole day, while she acts like him.
Now, before you go thinking of this book as “Dangerous Minds” or that Hilary Swank/Inner-City Kids write poetry movie, I assure you that though there are some similar themes and moments, “Educating Esme” is the real deal – a raw and quirky journal of a teacher trying to do some good in a system where kids come to school from homeless shelters, parents beat their kids in front of the teachers, the students stab a substitute who insults them, and when Esme writes, “I hope he doesn’t shoot me” regarding a troubled kid, it’s only partly a joke. In an epilogue, Esme (who has left the shady school for another, better, one) watches sixteen of her thirty-one then-fifth graders as they graduate 8th grade and wonders where the rest went. It’s a sobering moment, but it’s the very thing that keeps this book from getting too “Hollywood.”
“Madame Esme,” as she prefers to be called, has gone on to become an advocate for literature-based instruction. She’s written books about encouraging reading, as well as books for children. Kudos to her for her time in the classroom, and for her efforts to help kids.
“Educating Esme” is a seriously great read. I’m keeping this one on my bookshelf for years to come, I can tell.