Among Schoolchildren by Tracy Kidder
reviewed by Dr. James W. Hunt
Provost and Dean of the Faculty and Professor of Education
As a college student in the early 70s, I had a strong desire to do something that would “make a difference in the world.” (It is my experience that this continues to be a primary desire for many college students.) As I started to explore majors that might lead to an opportunity to “make a difference,” I began to think seriously about teaching—in particular, teaching at the elementary school level. I’m not sure why I was drawn to it. Both my parents were college professors, so teaching was a tradition in our family. I had three younger brothers with whom I dealt on a daily basis, so maybe I thought I would be “good with kids.” At that time, there were few males teaching at the elementary level (this is still true today), so maybe I thought I might be able to contribute to the lives of children in some special way—as a role model for students who may need it. Certainly, I had experienced great teachers in my own career as a student, so maybe I wanted to emulate them (of course, I had experienced some not-so-great teachers and they, too, served as a bit of an inspiration!!) Whatever the influences, about half-way through my sophomore year, I decided to take the plunge and declare a major in elementary education. From that point forward, I was immersed in methodology courses—how to teach reading, how to teach mathematics, how to teach science, how to teach whatever—I was doing it all, except working with real live students—this did not occur until the last eight weeks of my senior year, when I did my student teaching. (Thankfully, this is no longer the case—most teacher education programs provide comprehensive field experiences before student teaching.) As I approached student teaching, I was terrified. What if this was not the career for me? What if I didn’t like it? What if the students didn’t like me? How would I justify all the work I had put into my preparation? As I stepped into the classroom for the first time, my apprehension began to fade away—and, I knew this was the place for me—at least for now—and what would turn out to be my twelve-year career as an elementary school teacher was on its way.
It was not until the summer of 1995, eight years after I taught my last elementary school class, that I encountered a book that captured all the apprehension and joy, elation and sadness, exhaustion and exhilaration, and resentment and gratification that I experienced as an elementary school teacher. In the intervening eight years, I had moved into a career as a college professor, teaching people how to be teachers and, while I was in and out of classrooms with my student teachers, I think I had forgotten the sights and sounds and smells and textures that came with being in the classroom day after day, week after week. That is, until I read Among Schoolchildren by Tracy Kidder.
As an author, Tracy Kidder employs an approach to writing that is best described as literary journalism or “creative nonfiction.” He is capable of taking the routines of everyday life and presenting them as compelling dramas that allow the reader to fully “locate” themselves within the time, place, and events he is describing. He won the Pulitzer Prize for The Soul of a New Machine, a book that follows a team of computer engineers as they diligently work to build a revolutionary mini-computer, and won wide acclaim for House, a book that chronicles the construction of a private home. Next in line was Among Schoolchildren, a vivid description of one year in the life of a Holyoke, Massachusetts fifth-grade class and their teacher, Mrs. Zajac.
As with his other works, Kidder approached the writing of Among Schoolchildren by immersing himself in his subject. He sat in Mrs. Zajac’s classroom every day for the entire school year, taking thousands of pages of notes and crafting a story that is, in my opinion, truly remarkable. The book spans the entire school year and places the reader in the midst of a classroom that is filled to the brim with emotion, learning, and growth.
In the opening section, entitled “September,” Kidder introduces us to the cast of characters: Chris Zajac, the 34-year-old teacher, full of energy and enthusiasm, strolling confidently about the classroom, discussing the rules of the class and establishing herself as “Mrs. Zajac;” Miss Hunt, the eager and frightened student teacher, smiling timidly at the children from her table at the back of the room; and the students, twenty in all, including Clarence, with his ongoing disciplinary problems; the “academically quick” Judith and Alice; Claude, the student who is so eager to please; and Courtney, small and doll-like, and easily distracted. But, it is not the characters themselves that make this book so compelling. More so, it is the way in which Kidder seems to capture every emotion of the classroom—vividly displaying the fragility of both teacher and students as they engage in the risks of learning and growing together.
From “September,” Kidder takes us through the year –through “Awakenings,” “Homework,” “Discipline,” “Sent Away,” “Recovery,” “Isla del Encanto,” “The Science Fair” and, finally, to “June” when the school year comes to its inevitable end.
Throughout the year, Kidder allows the reader to see and feel the interactions between teacher and students—the ongoing conflicts between Chris and Clarence, the anticipation and excitement that precedes school holidays, the emptiness teachers and children feel when a classmate moves away, and the ways in which a teacher never can leave the worries about children “at school,” just to mention a few.
In the closing paragraph of Among Schoolchildren, Kidder sums up the year from Mrs. Zajac’s vantage point—a view I shared for twelve years:
Even the most troubled children had attractive qualities for Chris. Even the most toughened, she always felt, wanted to please her and wanted her to like them, no matter how perversely they expressed it. She belonged among schoolchildren. They made her confront sorrow and injustice. They made her feel useful. Again, this year, some had needed more help than she could provide. There were many problems she hadn’t solved. But it wasn’t for a lack of trying. She hadn’t given up. She had run out of time.