Polyphonist’s #CBR5 Review #7: Educating Esmè by Esmè Raji Codell

ImageWhen my sister was in her teens, she was in her high school production of Up the Down Staircase. It was thrilling and interesting to me, even at seven years old. A few years later, I read it and thought simultaneously “I would love to become a teacher” and “I will NEVER become a teacher.” Regardless of how that turned out, reading that book (and rereading it every few years) has instilled in me a love of teacher non-fiction. Educating Esmè: Diary of a Teacher’s First Year was one I’d never heard of but stumbled upon in a Goodwill bookstore. The first sentence of the description had me hooked in seconds:

Esmè Raji Codell has come to teach. Fresh-mouthed and miniskirted, this irrepressible spirit does the cha-cha during multiplication lessons, roller-skates down the hallways, and puts on rousing performances with at-risk students in the library.

That’s the kind of teacher I’d want. That’s the kind of teacher I’d want my (as yet non-existent) kids to have, if I had to send them to public school. That’s the kind of teacher I’d want to be.

Reading it was, by turns, hilarious and heartbreaking, uplifting and scary as hell. Sentences like, “Esther hasn’t fist-fought anyone since she’s been in my room, but she keeps putting voodoo spells on everyone.” and “Well, they stabbed the substitute today. In the back, with a pencil.” show that there’s a lot “Madame Esmè” has to deal with. And it gets even more sobering when you realize that while, yes, this is Chicago Public Schools we’re talking about, it’s not high school. It’s not even middle school. These are 5th graders she’s teaching.

In Ms. Codell’s own words, here’s what she has to say about the process of teaching, both in prose and poetry:

“So much of teaching is sharing. Learning results in sharing, sharing results in change, change is learning. The only other job with so much sharing is parenting. That’s probably why the two are so often confused. You can’t test what sort of teacher someone will be, because testing what someone knows isn’t the same as what someone is able to share. This will be different for every teacher.”


How to Teach Learning
Sing it
Seal it in an envelope
Twist it under a bottle cap
“You Are a Winner!”
Tie it to the leg of a carrier pidgeon
and let it soar
Haord it greedily, with your back turned
Then share it with a magnanimous grin
and glittering eyes
Make it a surprise,
shining like a quarter
under a pillow
Whisper it,
like the tow of summer’s breath
through the willow

Hide it
just between the tart skin and sweet flesh
of an apple
Make it
Make it
let the children

If you want to see what’s going on in schools, both what the students are doing and learning and surrounded by, and also what the teachers and administrations are doing (the good, the bad, and the roller-skating), check this book out. There’s plenty that’s shocking and frightening, but it’s better to know. Also, there’s so much good that “Madame Esmè” does for these kids that it helps counteract the bad. She buys them books. Takes in a few kids for a night when their mother is working out a restraining order against their father, who shot the mother. Teaches them to sew a state flower quilt, holds conflict resolution time in class, encourages each child’s culture (so much so that a student gifts her with a sari, which Esmè dons immediately and wears for the rest of the day), and so much more. She shares everything she can with them and they (and we) are so much richer for it.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s