Every August, Christine Padden Zajac, the real-life heroine of Tracy Kidder’s Among Schoolchildren, prepares herself with mixed enthusiasm and anxiety for another year of teaching fifth or sixth grade at Kelly School. Her feelings, as well as the varieties of teaching experience she has, are fairly typical for teachers in American elementary schools. Kelly School, at which she teaches, is not an inner-city school in the popular understanding of that term. Though it is located on the edge of the impoverished “Flats” of Holyoke, Massachusetts, it also draws its students from the affluent “Highlands” section of town. Kelly School in general and Mrs. Zajac’s fifth-grade class in particular constitute a microcosm of American elementary education in the late 1980’s.
Mrs. Zajac, as her young charges respectfully address her (except when in confused innocence they call her “Mrs. Ajax” or, much more rarely, when in bold insolence they call her “witch”), always refers to herself in the third person when addressing her class: “Mrs. Zajac means business, Robert. 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 is actually thirty-four-old enough to remember more homogeneous classes in her first years of teaching, but also young enough to adapt her skills tirelessly to the heterogeneous groups she faces in the late 1980’s as a veteran teacher.
Traditional training did not anticipate the combination of problems that Mrs. Zajac faces: twenty children, two-thirds of whom come from impoverished homes. Among the affluent Highlands children there is a tendency to underachieve; among the poorest Flats children there are innate abilities that their daily environment threatens to extinguish. Judith, a Puerto Rican girl from the Flats, has linguistic and writing talents that far surpass those of any other member of the class. Her friend, Alice, who lives in the Highlands, has considerable ability, though her social advantages make her feel less impelled to develop it. Alice usually achieves the second-highest grades in the class. Both girls adore Mrs. Zajac and inevitably side with her when the going gets rough. Mrs. Zajac often privately rebukes herself for not having enough time to give them the extra individual attention they deserve.
At the bottom of the class is Clarence, a black boy from an unstable home in the Flats. What makes Clarence’s academic situation more tragic is his undeveloped ability, already stunted in the fifth grade and held down by his environment. Clarence does little or no work and offers no excuses; Mrs. Zajac, through the boy’s counseling history, knows the reasons. Still, this knowledge by itself neither helps raise Clarence’s second-grade reading level nor helps manage the discipline problems that he causes increasingly during the year. Mrs. Zajac often chuckles privately at Clarence’s little acts of defiance (for example, a class essay entitled “Hunten house” in which Mrs. Zajac is cast as a witch); nevertheless, she eventually realizes that the time it takes to get even a minimal response from Clarence lessens the amount of attention she can give to her other students. Reluctantly (and with considerably more hesitation than Clarence’s mother) she assents to an administrative decision to place the boy in an “Alpha” class-two children per teacher, with each child seated in a partitioned cubicle. Essentially, the “Alpha” schools are for incorrigible discipline problems; though cosmetically more agreeable than the infamous “600 schools” of the 1940’s New York City system, they are no less like minimal security prison. Few children return to mainstream schools once placed in “Alpha,” and Mrs. Zajac fears this will also be the case for Clarence. One of the most poignant moments in Kidder’s book occurs on the last day of the school year when Clarence, released early from his Alpha school, returns to look in on his former classmates. Mrs. Zajac would like to have kept him, but she rationalizes that his progress could not be any less at his new school than it had been with her.
Robert has problems of another sort. He, too, does little work. When angry or frustrated, he begins to slap himself, gouge a wound in his hand, or beat his head against his desk. Mrs. Zajac notes the different kind of class disruption that Robert causes. The boy is obese, which is another indication that his violence is self-directed. Unlike Clarence, Robert has clear psychological problems. To deal with these as quickly as possible, parental consent is necessary, but Robert’s mother fails to appear at several scheduled counseling sessions. When she finally does, she does not...
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