Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1976
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 question the need for the free professional help the boy can obtain. Neither, however, does she take him to the clinic. Mrs. Zajac pities Clarence’s mother, but she dislikes Robert’s mother instantly. Before year’s end, she herself files a report in her capacity as Robert’s teacher that will require Kelly School to see that Robert obtains the help he needs. Robert remains in Mrs. Zajac’s class.
It would be wrong to imagine, though, that Mrs. Zajac’s class is filled with problem students. Kidder provides evocative pseudonyms for each child, thereby describing their distinctive and mostly charming personalities. Mariposa is as gentle and agreeable as her pretty name. Mrs. Zajac imagines Mariposa as an adult nurse. The little girl seems always to be doing something to help her classmates: holding doors, finding misplaced books, patiently bearing a particularly tedious lesson. Felipe is a dandy, more concerned about his appearance than are most boys his age. Mrs. Zajac notes that he is especially handsome and concludes he will have no shortage of girlfriends once he reaches his teens. Arabella is a chubby, happy little girl with the broadest smile Mrs. Zajac has ever seen. One major victory Mrs. Zajac achieves is in fostering the respect these children obviously have for one another. As different as they are, they form a single class. Even Judith, so far above the others in natural ability, never boasts or appears to consider herself more able than the rest, and the others appear to accept her in every sense.
Chris, as Mrs. Zajac is called by her husband and colleagues, appears ever convinced by her mission as a teacher and pursues her tasks throughout the school year with apparently undiminished energy. She herself is a native of Holyoke, and is of the old Irish stock that populated most of that town until the late 1950’s. She enjoys thinking of herself as Christine Padden, the Irish girl from the lower-class part of the Highlands, and she has not forgotten the stories she heard as a child about the blatant discrimination the Irish faced in the mills and factories of Holyoke in the early years of the twentieth century. Remembering her own family’s origins allows her to feel greater empathy for the children she teaches: recent arrivals from Puerto Rico with severe comprehension problems in both English and Spanish; Asian children whose families were refugees from conflicts in Vietnam, Cambodia, and Thailand; American blacks from the rural South; children from the West Indies and Philippines. Chris often thinks of her class as a miniature United Nations, but one in which there is genuine regard for difference.
Chris’s marriage to Billy Zajac is clearly an important source of support in her work. It had certainly been adventuresome for a demure Irish girl to marry a Polish boy like Billy, then to pull up stakes and move to the Florida air force base where he was stationed. Chris lasted exactly one month in Florida; even before the first snow, she missed New England winters as well as her teaching, so the couple returned to Holyoke and their own home on the fringe of the Highlands. Living in Holyoke also allows Chris to return daily to the house in which she was reared; her mother, widowed, lives there in retirement and maintains the house exactly as it had been when Chris was a girl. Another element of the success she enjoys as a teacher clearly lies in Chris’s continued identification with her community.
Kelly School appears a pleasant environment in which to work. Its building is relatively modern, of late 1960’s vintage, designed with administrative and classroom wings which connect with a large central room called a “cafetorium,” a cafeteria that doubles as an auditorium. The classrooms have blue carpeting and brightly colored movable desk chairs. Chris arranges these ingeniously: an open perimeter of five chairs on a side, in which she seats students who require less constant attention, an inner quadrant of four chairs with space for a fifth, in which she places those who need her help most. This arrangement allows her proximity to all her students, though its stigmatizes none of them.
Al Laudato is Kelly School’s principal, and like successful administrators in any school he too believes in his school’s mission. Though he falls into colloquialism and appears rather more roughedged than one might imagine for a person in his position, he has good commonsense ideas, and he supports and encourages his teaching staff. Even when news is discouraging, as when Kelly School students score poorly on standardized reading tests, Laudato calmly considers what the staff can do to improve scores the following year.
Memorable small dramas fill the pages of Kidder’s book. There is the agonizing administrative decision about what to do with Clarence. To its credit, the staff is concerned with finding the solution best for the boy and for the other students in his class. All recognize the danger in simply sending Clarence away. The remaining children may assume that his Alpha class is a punishment, a warning to the rest that nonconformity is forbidden. Chris breaks the news privately to Clarence, then to the class when Clarence is out of the room on an errand. She has the class prepare and sign a card wishing him well, then tapes all the spare change she has in her purse to the back of it to make sure that the unpredictable Clarence does not reject what the class has labored to create.
There is also the continuing drama of a teacher-in-training. Miss Hunt, a student teacher, must face the challenge of teaching the class for a three-day series of lessons. Eager as she is, she must learn to acquire the poise of a seasoned teacher quickly. Chris realizes that actually teaching is, unfortunately, the only way to discover if one is meant to be a teacher, and she fears lest some unforeseen catastrophe occur during this period; on the whole, Miss Hunt succeeds.
Predictable disasters include the annual science fair, in which most students either produce exhibits that do not work or, like Robert, threaten to produce nothing at all, and the annual field day, which proves only that Mrs. Zajac teaches the most unathletic class at Kelly School. An excursion to Sturbridge Village, a re-creation of an early American town, is, however, a great success, most popular among Mrs. Zajac’s first- generation Americans. Mrs. Zajac causes a mild sensation by appearing in sportsclothes, for the first and only time of the year.
One might object that not much is learned in Mrs. Zajac’s fifth-grade class; even if valid, this is an accusation which one can apply to American elementary education in general. Mrs. Zajac labors valiantly and indefatigably to teach the joy of learning, and her obvious enthusiasm for teaching is her greatest asset. Readers who do not teach will finish Kidder’s Among Schoolchildren with increased respect for the tenacity and steady courage of dedicated teachers such as Christine Zajac; teachers will find in her many qualities worth emulating.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 49
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