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I Hate My Teacher
Fifth-grader DILLON LONDON is the only boy in Mrs. JACKSON’S homeroom class who dares to rebel under her strict teaching style. He even declares war on her. Resentful, he renames her “The GENERAL”, since she taught the class to march in the hallways, like army soldiers, always stepping out on their left foot first. He defies her by using his right foot first, which gives a “flat tire” to the shoe of whomever is in front of him in line. He delights in playing tricks on her, although she rarely falls for whatever tricks he pulls. In fact, several of his tricks backfire, which causes the General to laugh out loud. She delights in tricking him first. Whenever she catches him misbehaving, she gives him detention. He hates missing recess after lunch, when he must go to MRS. WOODS’ room to copy pages from the dictionary…he’s up to page 47. Rather than learning to accept the General’s authority and cooperate, Dillon continues to misbehave by putting tiny plastic bugs in snooty, but beautiful, ISABELLA’S hair just as she is about to have her hair checked for lice by the school nurse. Although he is again assigned to detention, he is surprised when the General gives him a rare smile with tears in her eyes. At Open House, the General convinces his mother that he should enter the Science Fair, an idea he resists. She also makes him help the new boy, TRAN ANH VO, whose family were refugees from South Vietnam. Now friends, Tran teaches Dillon to make jumping origami frogs. Both boys become targets of the class bully, “BIG JOE”, whose grandfather was killed in the war. Big Joe hates all Vietnamese people. The General intervenes to stop the hatred directed at Tran. She teaches the class about the war and takes Big Joe on home-visits to Tran’s house. When Tran comes down with chicken pox, Dillon takes to him his homework assignments and learns more about the tragic story of the fall of Vietnam to communism and how it affected Tran’s family. While trying to escape from northern Vietnam by raft on a river, Tran’s great-grandmother sacrificed herself by surrendering to soldiers on a river patrol boat, so that her sons could escape to freedom. Still grieving after many years, Tran’s great-grandfather burns incense at the family shrine, in memory of his lost wife. Dillon is impressed with the Buddhist family’s traditions. Dillon and Tran befriend a gentle black boy, Jabari, who has autism and often joins their class where he is allowed to wear headphones to protect him from being overwhelmed by noise. Jabari is a musical savant and can repeat any song he hears on a piano. The music teacher often lets Jabari perform for the class, when he is willing. Caught with his pants down during a fire drill, Dillon slips in a puddle of water in the boys’ bathroom and receives a concussion. He is taken by ambulance to the hospital where his mother works as a nurse. His nose is broken and swollen. First, MRS. BRODE, his favorite math teacher, visits him with get well cards made by his classmates. Then, the General visits Dillon in the hospital and gives him her son’s beloved “sock monkey”. Dillon is bothered that she would do so. He is confused, but happy that his relationship with the General seems to be improving. When she promises to visit him again in the hospital, he decides to give her a chance, but only if she keeps her promise. When she fails to appear, he angrily vows to continue their war, not knowing that she is gravely ill. He later learns that KEVIN, her son, was killed in Vietnam, while rescuing wounded soldiers in a helicopter during a battle. Dillon convinces himself that the General hates him because he reminds her of her dead son, and he hates her right back. Dillon’s father, an army soldier serving in the Middle East, returns home on emergency family leave and surprises Dillon and his sister, PAISLEY, and MOM at a cheerleading competition at the high school. SAM and LACEY, friends of Dillon’s parents, devote many hours toward helping military families when a parent is serving far from home. After his dad leaves, Dillon returns to school and learns that the General is sick. She has been replaced by a goofy, bird-like substitute teacher he names “CAPTAIN KLUTZ”. She is clueless as to what happens in class. Without supervision, the class descends into chaos. Dillon’s behavior is as bad as everyone else’s. He sneaks out of class on a dare, while the substitute teacher reads aloud a silly story. The class laughs uproariously when Dillon returns to class with toilet paper draped over his head. She thinks they are laughing at her poem. Later, the pet mouse, Casper, escapes from his cage during an amazing fight using paper airplanes. When the class gets really wild and Big Joe is about to throw a desk at Dillon after Dillon locked him in a storage closet, MR. LINDSEY, the vice-principal, intervenes just in time and removes both Big Joe and the Klutz. Yet another substitute is called in, one who had the General as her teacher when she was in fifth grade. She is as strict as the General, and Dillon names her “MAJOR PAYNE”. A quieter, calmer Big Joe returns to class. The class calms down just in time for the big achievement tests. Although silence during the test is mandatory, the class erupts in screams and laughter when the class mouse emerges from hiding, climbs onto Isabella’s shoe and becomes stuck to her sock. Dillon rescues the mouse and returns him to his cage. With the big tests over, the school celebrates with “Field Day”, when classes compete against each other for ribbons provided by the P.T.O. Before the first event, Major Payne gives each student a T-shirt…a gift from the General. “Payne’s Pythons” shirts show a red python snaking around the bright yellow letters. Each student’s name is written on the shirt. The shirts make the class feel like a real team, and they cheer each other on in each event. Surprised by how everyone is rooting for him, Big Joe continues to change his ways. Tran’s great-grandfather is teaching him self-control through martial arts, an idea that horrifies Dillon. In school, art projects take the place of hard study, and the classroom looks great. Dillon takes a moment to enjoy the decorations they have made. He smiles when a boy accidentally spills glue into Big Joe’s shoe. Big Joe handles himself well, as he tries to clean up the mess. Dillon understands how much better school is when everyone behaves. He admits to himself that he was ashamed of his own behavior under Captain Klutz, knowing how angry and disappointed his father would be in him. Dillon is relieved when the Science Fair project is completed. When he thinks of how the General must love only her dead son and not him, Dillon feels angry at her, and tears up the project’s poster. Later, when he regrets his action, his sister, Paisley, helps him make another, even better poster. He turns the project in the next day, feeling proud of himself, and surprised by what he accomplished because the General pushed him. Dillon is upset when the General appears at Field Day. He picks up his blue ribbon after his team wins the tug-o’-war. But, confused by his feelings when he learns that she may be dying, he doesn’t want to see her and he walks away. When she follows and hugs him, he realizes how wrong he has been. She isn’t his worst enemy, but someone he has learned to love dearly, as she seems to love him, as well. Afraid that she is about to tell him that she is dying, Dillon laughs when she tells him instead that his hair smells like pickles, after he was hit in the ear during a popcorn and pickle “food fight” at the refreshment table. A few days later, the General undergoes surgery. When MRS. BRODE rushes into the classroom, crying, Dillon believes the General is dead and regrets that it has taken him so long to understand her. He is heartbroken, and he is wrong. The General survived surgery and is on the road to recovery. Several students are crying, and Dillon realizes that he isn’t the only one who loves her. Even Big Joe is struggling to control his emotions. As the class lines up and the order is given to “March!”, Dillon stands up straight and reveals his new attitude by smiling and proudly stepping out with his left foot first.
Simpson’s heartwarming debut middle grade novel captures a fifth-grader’s point of view about some of life’s more difficult moments. Dillon, a rambunctious but well-meaning 11-year-old, thinks his teacher, Mrs. Jackson, is too strict and picks on him. He nicknames her General Jackson and fights back by pulling more pranks and acting out. But Dillon begins to learn that her extra attention may be because she sees something special in him. When Dillon has an accident at school and is hospitalized with a concussion, Mrs. Jackson’s touching visit shows a loving side, and a special friendship grows between them.

The ingenuous, sometimes understandably confused view of a young boy makes emotional scenes especially moving. When Dillon and his sisters are surprised by their dad’s return from deployment, Dillon’s shock is realistically conveyed; his sisters leap into their father’s arms, but Dillon hangs back, confused and overcome. As Dillon realizes that Mrs. Jackson is dangerously ill, his fears of losing her and growing love for her are powerfully expressed. He painstakingly works through his thoughts and feelings, trying to understand how his anger, worry, and boredom drive him to act in ways he later regrets. Some of his pranks are humorous, conveying the lighter side of fifth grade without distracting from the heavier themes.

Simpson’s experience as a schoolteacher shines through as she develops the individual personalities of each student and faculty member. The narrative is warm toward Jabari, Dillon’s autistic classmate; Tran, a Vietnamese-American transfer student; and even bully Big Joe, whose hostility toward Tran is rooted in Joe’s grandfather’s death during the Vietnam War. Wars past and present are major influences on the story. Chunks of exposition about military history interrupt the flow, but Simpson always relates them to the experiences of ordinary servicemembers and civilians. Poignant but not depressing, this nuanced novel will help children gain perspective on historical and present-day sorrows.

Takeaway: Tweens going through hard times will respond powerfully to this poignant tale of a boy grappling with anxiety and loss.

Great for fans of Rosanne Parry’s Heart of a Shepherd.

Production grades
Cover: B
Design and typography: A
Illustrations: C
Editing: A
Marketing copy: B