Tracy Kidder’s Among Schoolchildren is the story of Mrs. Zajac’s 5th grade classroom; it’s also a masterful work of literary journalism about what it means to engage meaningfully in everyday work. I dare say it’s the best book about teaching I’ve read.
On the tops of pages 138 and 139, I wrote in all capitals, “I WANT TO BE IN MRS. ZAJAC’S CLASS.” This is because Mrs. Zajac is serious. And funny. And mean and nice and fair. She is quintessentially a teacher, yet her students (and Kidder’s readers) sympathize with her as a human being. Mrs. Zajac makes me want to teach better, and the way Kidder describes her teaching makes me want to write better.
The book begins with several pages that describe Mrs. Zajac, her students, and the classroom. “She was thirty-four,” Kidder writes. “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” (3). Mrs. Zajac’s hair was swept back “like a pair of folded wings” and her lips “held the shapes of certain words, such as ‘homework,’ after she had said them. Her hands… sliced the air and made karate chops to mark off boundaries. They extended straight out like a traffic cop’s… When they rested momentarily on her hips, her hands looked as if they were in holsters” (4). These details are important: We know what Mrs. Zajac looks like and a little about how she moves about her classroom. We know her hands look like they sit in holsters and that her hair looks like angel’s wings—that Mrs. Zajac can sport a halo and sling guns. Because she’s that kind of teacher.
Her classroom smells, Kidder notes, like construction paper and rodent spray. “The children’s chairs,” he writes, “came in primary colors, like a bag full of party balloons” (10) The window “was one long, rectangular sheet of smoky, slightly scratched Plexiglas flanked by two small casements. The windows opened onto the playground below” (21). The students wear “new white sneakers with the ends of the laces untied and tucked behind the tongues.” One day when Mrs. Zajac is gone a stand, Kidder recounts, a student mounts a cart of encyclopedias and sits on top of it like “a grinning emperor on an elephant” (6, 113).
I want to sound like that.
That is all.