Ideas sometimes backfire—badly. Then again, sometimes, in a roundabout and painful fashion, the backfiring idea can spur growth.
One can almost always assume that many seventh and eighth graders are oblivious to another person’s privacy and feelings, but the same can be said about some adults, especially an administrator that has something to prove. In the humorous book “The Secret Life of Ms. Finkleman,” Ben H. Winters cleverly exposes the swirling undercurrent beneath the surface at Mary Todd Lincoln Middle School.
The saga starts innocently enough. Bethesda Fielding’s social studies teacher, Mr. Melville—feared by most students and faculty—assigns his students a special research project. Mr. Melville challenges his students to think about what they know and what they don’t know. They are to research a mystery in their own lives and “follow it where it leads.”
Like Nancy Drew, or a dog with a bone, Bethesda Fielding, self-identified as “Mystery Solver,” settles on unraveling the mystery of her music teacher, Ms. Ida Finkleman.
Ms. Finkleman is forgettable—so much so, that neither students nor fellow teachers know any of her personal details: “her friends, her family. . . Anything.” She doesn’t socialize with anyone on the staff, and except for one tiny thing, she doesn’t keep personal possessions in her classroom. Outside the classroom, most people would probably look right through her.
To Bethesda’s mind, unraveling the mystery of Ms. Finkleman will surely earn her an “A.” As it turns out, her “A” is hard earned.
When normal avenues of research, such as talking to teachers, staff, and other students, fail to produce even a smattering of information, and Internet and article searches don’t turn up information either, Bethesda resorts to snooping. Desperate for clues and afraid she’s going to fail her project, Bethesda rifles through Ms. Finleman’s desk. On a piece of papers, she finds one odd little clue—a code. Something about the code strikes a chord in Bethesda’s memory, but what?
Discovering the answer to the code will change Ms. Finkleman’s life forever.
Winters provides a snapshot of the school day to which young readers should be able to relate. “The Secret Life’s” cast of characters includes good students, mediocre students, and academically challenged students. Some students (and an administrator) have major faults, like overweening pride or sloth.
While most of the story focuses on Bethesda’s thoughts and actions, readers get a glimpse of Ms. Finkleman’s. What does Ms. Finkleman think about her students? She likens them to powerful jungle beasts, and keeping with the jungle theme, she thinks of herself as a prey animal: the agoutis. An agouti’s survival depends on its “being as small and still and plain and dull as possible.”
As the mystery unfolds, readers understand why, despite her insecurities, Ms. Finkleman continues to teach. Along the way, Winters reveals a powerful lesson on taking responsibility for one’s own actions.
Winter knows his audience, and nudges them toward thinking a little more broadly by putting oneself in someone else’s shoes. More importantly, “The Secret Life” is a fun book to read. It should appeal to grades 5 through 9. Hopefully, the antics of the students at Mary Todd Lincoln Middle School will get readers thinking about mysteries in the world around them.
Image copyright HarperCollins. Review copy from the reviewer's local library.
Kim Morelandis the managing editor for the Colson Center, manages the Colson Center Library, is a research associate for BreakPoint, and writes feature articles and blog posts for BreakPoint.
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