“Among School Children is more than a book about needy children and a valiant teacher; it is full of the author’s genuine love, delight and celebration of the human condition.” —New York Times Book Review
Tracy Kidder—the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Soul of a New Machine and the extraordinary national bestseller House—spent nine months in Mrs. Zajac's fifth-grade classroom in the depressed "Flats" of Holyoke, Massachusetts. For an entire year he lived among twenty schoolchildren and their indomitable, compassionate teacher—sharing their joys, their catastrophes, and their small but essential triumphs.
As a result, he has written a revealing, remarkably poignant account of education in America.
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Mrs. Zajac wasn't born yesterday. She knows you didn't do your best work on this paper, Clarence. Don't you remember Mrs. Zajac saying that if you didn't do your best, she'd make you do it over? As for you, Claude, God forbid that you should ever need brain surgery. But Mrs. Zajac hopes that if you do, the doctor won't open up your head and walk off saying he's almost done, as you just said when Mrs. Zajac asked you for your penmanship, which, by the way, looks like who did it and ran. Felipe, the reason you have hiccups is, your mouth is always open and the wind rushes in. You're in fifth grade now. So, Felipe, put a lock on it. Zip it up. Then go get a drink of water. Mrs. Zajac means business, Robert. The sooner you realize she never said everybody in the room has to do the work except for Robert, the sooner you'll get along with her. And ... Clarence. Mrs. Zajac knows you didn't try. You don't just hand in junk to Mrs. Zajac. She's been teaching an awful lot of years. She didn't fall off the turnip cart yesterday. She told you she was an old-lady teacher.
She was thirty-four. She wore a white skirt and yellow sweater and a thin gold necklace, which she held in her fingers, as if holding her own reins, while waiting for children to answer. Her hair was black with a hint of Irish red. It was cut short to the tops of her ears, and swept back like a pair of folded wings. She had a delicately cleft chin, and she was short — the children's chairs would have fit her. Although her voice sounded conversational, it had projection. She had never acted. She had found this voice in classrooms.
Mrs. Zajac seemed to have a frightening amount of energy. She strode across the room, her arms swinging high and her hands in small fists. Taking her stand in front of the green chalkboard, discussing the rules with her new class, she repeated sentences, and her lips held the shapes of certain words, such as "homework," after she had said them. Her hands kept very busy. They sliced the air and made karate chops to mark off boundaries. They extended straight out like a traffic cop's, halting illegal maneuvers yet to be perpetrated. When they rested momentarily on her hips, her hands looked as if they were in holsters. She told the children, "One thing Mrs. Zajac expects from each of you is that you dolour best." She said, "Mrs. Zajac gives homework. I'm sure you've all heard. The only meanie gives homework." Mrs. Zajac. It was in part a role. She worked her way into it every September.
At home on late summer days like these, Chris Zajac wore shorts or blue jeans. Although there was no dress code for teachers here at Kelly School, she always went to work in skirts or dresses. She dressed as if she were applying for a job, and hoped in the back of her mind that someday, heading for job interviews, her students would remember her example. Outside school, she wept easily over small and large catastrophes and at sentimental movies, but she never cried in front of students, except once a few years ago when the news came over the intercom that the Space Shuttle had exploded and Christa McAuliffe had died — and then she saw in her students' faces that the sight of Mrs. Zajac crying had frightened them, and she made herself stop and then explained.
At home, Chris laughed at the antics of her infant daughter and egged the child on. She and her first-grade son would sneak up to the radio when her husband wasn't looking and change the station from classical to rock-and-roll music. "You're regressing, Chris," her husband would say. But especially on the first few days of school, she didn't let her students get away with much. She was not amused when, for instance, on the first day, two of the boys started dueling with their rulers. On nights before the school year started, Chris used to have bad dreams: her principal would come to observe her, and her students would choose that moment to climb up on their desks and give her the finger, or they would simply wander out the door. But a child in her classroom would never know that Mrs. Zajac had the slightest doubt that students would obey her.
The first day, after going over all the school rules, Chris spoke to them about effort. "If you put your name on a paper, you should be proud of it," she said. "You should think, This is the best I can do and I'm proud of it and I want to hand this in." Then she asked, "If it isn't your best, what's Mrs. Zajac going to do?"
Many voices, most of them female, answered softly in unison, "Make us do it over."
"Make you do it over," Chris repeated. It sounded like a chant.
"Does anyone know anything about Lisette?" she asked when no one answered to that name.
Felipe — small, with glossy black hair — threw up his hand.
"She isn't here!" said Felipe. He wasn't being fresh. On those first few days of school, whenever Mrs. Zajac put the sound of a question in her voice, and sometimes before she got the question out, Felipe's hand shot up.
In contrast, there was the very chubby girl who sat nearly motionless at her desk, covering the lower half of her face with her hands. As usual, most of their voices sounded timid the first day, and came out of hiding gradually. There were twenty children. About half were Puerto Rican. Almost two-thirds of the twenty needed the forms to obtain free lunches. There was a lot of long and curly hair. Some boys wore little rattails. The eyes the children lifted up to her as she went over the rules — a few eyes were blue and many more were brown — looked so solemn and so wide that Chris felt like dropping all pretense and laughing. Their faces ranged from dark brown to gold, to pink, to pasty white, the color that Chris associated with sunless tenements and too much TV. The boys wore polo shirts and T-shirts and new white sneakers with the ends of the laces untied and tucked behind the tongues. Some girls wore lacy ribbons in their hair, and some wore pants and others skirts, a rough but not infallible indication of religion — the daughters of Jehovah's Witnesses and Pentecostals do not wear pants. There was a lot of prettiness in the room, and all of the children looked cute to Chris.
So did the student teacher, Miss Hunt, a very young woman in a dress with a bow at the throat who sat at a table in the back of the room. Miss Hunt had a sweet smile, which she turned on the children, hunching her shoulders when they looked at her. At times the first days, while watching Chris in action, Miss Hunt seemed to gulp. Sometimes she looked as frightened as the children. For Chris, looking at Miss Hunt was like looking at herself fourteen years ago.
The smell of construction paper, slightly sweet and forest-like, mingled with the fading, acrid smell of roach and rodent spray. The squawk box on the wall above the closets, beside the clock with its jerky minute hand, erupted almost constantly, adult voices paging adults by their surnames and reminding staff of deadlines for the census forms, attendance calendars, and United Way contributions. Other teachers poked their heads inside the door to say hello to Chris or to ask advice about how to fill out forms or to confer with her on schedules for math and reading. In between interruptions, amid the usual commotion of the first day, Chris taught short lessons, assigned the children seat work, and attended to paperwork at her large gray metal desk over by the window.
For moments then, the room was still. From the bilingual class next door to the south came the baritone of the teacher Victor Guevara, singing to his students in Spanish. Through the small casement windows behind Chris came sounds of the city — Holyoke, Massachusetts — trailer truck brakes re-leasing giant sighs now and then, occasional screeches of freight trains, and, always in the background, the mechanical hum of ventilators from the school and from Dinn Bros. Trophies and Autron, from Leduc Corp. Metal Fabricators and Laminated Papers. It was so quiet inside the room during those moments that little sounds were loud: the rustle of a book's pages being turned and the tiny clanks of metal-legged chairs being shifted slightly. Bending over forms and the children's records, Chris watched the class from the corner of her eye. The first day she kept an especially close eye on the boy called Clarence.
Clarence was a small, lithe, brown-skinned boy with large eyes and deep dimples. Chris watched his journeys to the pencil sharpener. They were frequent. Clarence took the longest possible route around the room, walking heel-to-toe and brushing the back of one leg with the shin of the other at every step — a cheerful little dance across the blue carpet, around the perimeter of desks, and along the back wall, passing under the American flag, which didn't quite brush his head. Reaching the sharpener, Clarence would turn his pencil into a stunt plane, which did several loop-the-loops before plunging in the hole.
The first morning, Chris didn't catch one of the intercom announcements. She asked aloud if anyone had heard the message. Clarence, who seemed to stutter at the start of sentences when he was in a hurry to speak, piped up right away, "He he say to put the extra desks in the hall." Clarence noticed things. He paid close attention to the intercom. His eyes darted to the door the moment a visitor appeared. But he paid almost no attention to her lessons and his work. It seemed as if every time that she glanced at Clarence he wasn't working.
"Take a look at Clarence," Chris whispered to Miss Hunt. She had called Miss Hunt up to her desk for a chat. "Is he doing anything?" The other children were working. Clarence was just then glancing over his shoulder, checking on the clock. Miss Hunt hunched her shoulders and laughed without making a sound. "He has such huge eyes!" she said.
"And they're looking right through me," said Chris, who lifted her voice and called, "Clarence, the pencil's moving, right?" Then Chris smiled at Miss Hunt, and said in a half whisper, "I can see that Clarence and I will have a little chat out in the hall, one of these days."
Miss Hunt smiled, gulped, and nodded, all at once.
Chris had received the children's "cumulative" records, which were stuffed inside salmon-colored folders known as "cumes." For now she checked only addresses and phone numbers, and resisted looking into histories. It was usually better at first to let her own opinions form. But she couldn't help noticing the thickness of some cumes. "The thicker the cume, the more trouble," she told Miss Hunt. "If it looks like War and Peace ..." Clarence's cume was about as thick as the Boston phone book. And Chris couldn't help having heard what some colleagues had insisted on telling her about Clarence. One teacher whom Chris trusted had described him as probably the most difficult child in all of last year's fourthgrade classes. Chris wished she hadn't heard that, nor the rumors about Clarence. She'd heard confident but unsubstantiated assertions that he was a beaten child. These days many people applied the word "abused" to any apparently troubled student. She had no good reason to believe the rumors, but she couldn't help thinking, "What if they're true?" She wished she hadn't heard anything about Clarence's past at this early moment. She found it hard enough after thirteen years to believe that all fifth graders' futures lay before them out of sight, and not in plain view behind.
She'd try to ignore what she had heard and deal with problems as they came. Clarence's were surfacing quickly. He came to school the second morning without having done his homework. He had not done any work at all so far, except for one math assignment, and for that he'd just written down some numbers at random. She'd try to nip this in the bud. "No work, no recess," she told Clarence late the second morning. He had quit even pretending to work about half an hour before.
Just a little later, she saw Clarence heading for the pencil sharpener again. He paused near Felipe's desk. Clarence glanced back at her. She could see that he thought she wasn't looking.
Clarence set his jaw. He made a quick, sharp kick at Felipe's leg under the desk. Then he stalked, glancing backward at Chris, to the pencil sharpener. Felipe didn't complain.
Maybe Felipe had provoked the kick. Or maybe this was Clarence's way of getting even with her for threatening to keep him in from recess. It wasn't a pleasant thought. She let the incident pass. She'd have to watch Clarence carefully, though.
The afternoon of that second day of class, Chris warned Clarence several times that she would keep him after school if he didn't get to work. Detention seemed like a masochistic exercise. Sometimes it worked. It was a tool she'd found most useful at the beginning of a year and after vacations. In her experience, most children responded well to clearly prescribed rules and consequences, and she really didn't have many other tangible weapons. The idea was to get most of the unpleasantness, the scoldings and detentions, out of the way early. And, of course, if she threatened to keep Clarence after school, she had to keep her word. Maybe he would do some work, and she could have a quiet talk with him. She didn't plan to keep him long.
The other children went home, and so did Miss Hunt. Chris sat at her desk, a warm late-summer breeze coming through the little casement window behind her. She worked on her plans for next week, and from under cover of her bowed head, she watched Clarence. The children's chairs, the plastic backs and seats of which came in primary colors, like a bag full of party balloons, were placed upside down on the tops of their desks. Clarence sat alone at his desk, surrounded by upended chairs. He had his arms folded on his chest and was glaring at her. The picture of defiance. He would show her. She felt like laughing for a moment. His stubbornness was impressive. Nearly an hour passed, and the boy did no work at all.
Chris sighed, got up, and walked over to Clarence.
He turned his face away as she approached.
Chris sat in a child's chair and, resting her chin on her hand, leaned her face close to Clarence's.
He turned his farther away.
"What's the problem?"
He didn't answer. His eyelashes began to flutter.
"Do you understand the work in fifth grade?" He didn't answer.
"I hear you're a very smart boy. Don't you want to have a good year? Don't you want to take your work home and tell your mom, 'Look what I did'?"
The fluorescent lights in the ceiling were pale and bright. One was flickering. Tears came rolling out of Clarence's eyes. They streaked his brown cheeks.
Chris gazed at him, and in a while said, "Okay, I'll make a deal with you. You go home and do your work, and come in tomorrow with all your work done, and I'll pretend these two days never happened. We'll have a new Clarence tomorrow. Okay?"
Clarence still had not looked at her or answered.
"A new Clarence," Chris said. "Promise?"
Clarence made the suggestion of a nod, a slight concession to her, she figured, now that it was clear she would let him leave.
Her face was very close to his. Her eyes almost touched his tearstained cheeks. She gazed. She knew she wasn't going to see a new Clarence tomorrow. It would be naive to think a boy with a cume that thick was going to change overnight. But she'd heard the words in her mind anyway. She had to keep alive the little voice that says, Well, you never know. What was the alternative? To decide an eleven-year-old was going to go on failing, and there was nothing anyone could do about it, so why try? Besides, this was just the start of a campaign. She was trying to tell him, "You don't have to have another bad year. Your life in school can begin to change." If she could talk him into believing that, maybe by June there would be a new Clarence.
"We always keep our promises?" Chris said.
He seemed to make a little nod.
"I bet everyone will be surprised. We'll have a new Clarence," Chris said, and then she let him go.
When Chris had first walked into her room — Room 205 — back in late August, it felt like an attic. The chalkboards and bulletin boards were covered up with newspaper, and the bright colors of the plastic chairs seemed calculated to force cheerfulness upon her. On the side of one of the empty children's desks there was a faded sticker that read, OFFICIAL PACE CAR. A child from some other year must have put it there; he'd moved on, but she'd come back to the same place. There was always something a little mournful about coming back to an empty classroom at the end of summer, a childhood feeling, like being put to bed when it is light outside.
She spent her summer days with children, her own and those of friends. While her daughter splashed around in the wading pool and her son and his six-year-old buddies climbed the wooden fort her husband had built in their back yard, she sat at the picnic table and there was time to read — this summer, a few popular novels and then, as August wore on, a book called The Art of Teaching Writing, which she read with a marking pencil in hand, underlining the tips that seemed most useful. There was time for adult conversation, around the swimming pool at her best friend's house, while their children swam. In August she left Holyoke and spent a couple of weeks near the ocean with her husband and children, on Cape Cod. She liked the pace of summer, and of all the parts of summer she liked the mornings best, the unhurried, slowly unfolding mornings, which once again this year went by much too fast.
Excerpted from "Among Schoolchildren"
Copyright © 1989 John Tracy Kidder.
Excerpted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Isla del Encanto,
The Science Fair,
Acknowledgments and Sources,