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Educating Esme is the diary of Esme Codell’s first year teaching elementary school. Teacher friends told me this book was a quick read, but I wouldn’t know. Over and over I kept stopping to read funny parts out loud to my partner.

No doubt, Codell is committed—she works a second job on weekends to buy books for her students. She’s creative and quirky—she roller-skates down hallways and organizes a school wide Fairy Tale Festival. She’s cranky and curmudgeonly—complaining about the ear-deafening music during a school assembly. Yet this incongruous combo of youthful idealism and old-person moralizing keeps Codell logical and level-headed during trials caused by her principal, a man who stands behind her in dark rooms, phones in the evening to ask if he’s doing a good job, and ogles Codell’s breasts while wondering aloud if she might be willing to organize a school-wide promotion of milk.

If you’ve read Educating Esme and didn’t care for it (or Codell), I understand. She’s from the Department of High Maintenance. (I know because I see her around sometimes.) She needs to be recognized when she goes out of her way. Every injustice is her injustice. She needs to say how annoyed she is with the backlash that comes with speaking out.

She doesn’t say everything. As a writer, she knows what details to describe, especially when it comes to people. We see Codell’s teaching mentor’s “sharp eyes, like a sparrow,” and we see the Vice Principal’s oily hair hanging “like a jagged fence around her shoulders” (3, 59). Codell’s editorial filter provides most characters at least a sentence or two of salient description.

In a journal that could have been diluted with personal blathering, Codell describes maybe thirty seconds of each day in exacting detail. Sometimes the snippets connect, and sometimes they don’t. Sometimes a series of small tragedies develop into big drama, and sometimes they fizzle out. Readers can’t predict the length of the narrative threads any more than Codell can. The Case of the Stolen Comic Book stretches for a few pages while The Struggle Against Mr. Turner unravels all year.

Does Codell unravel herself, dropping four-letter words in her “diary” (which we’re all reading)? Absolutely. But here’s the thing: By the end of the book, we understand why her students believe in her brand of magic. Even when Codell roller skates down hallways, we don’t doubt her dominance. We believe in it more.

(Derek Smith)

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  1. September 25, 2012

    I give this copy to all the first year teachers I know! Thanks for showcasing it and bringing it into the conversation.

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