Imagine being a child’s doctor, lawyer, psychologist, and teacher all before 7:30 AM. Chris Zajac does this every day. In Among Schoolchildren by Tracy Kidder, Kidder sits in a classroom and observes Chris Zajac’s fifth grade class for an entire school year. Mrs. Zajac teaches in Holyoke Massachusetts, which at the time of the book is struggling with poverty. This book explores what it is like to teach and learn in a neighborhood where most people are living below the poverty line. These challenges are something most people have never experienced, and it opens the reader’s eyes to what it is like to teach and learn in this environment. Mrs. Zajac is an upbeat, caring teacher who does all she can for her students. While this book tackles the problem of teaching in poverty, the book can be repetitive and too detailed. Among Schoolchildren has many connections to Waiting for Superman because it is clear that Mrs. Zajac needs a saving figure to help many of these children.
Holyoke is an impoverished old mill city. Growing up in Newton, I have never experienced this type of poverty, especially not in school. However, after reading this book, I realize that perhaps there are kids like Mrs. Zajacs’, and I just don’t know about them. This situation is very similar to Waiting for Superman because many kids in the movie could not afford private school; therefore, they need to suffer in their old public schools. While the book does not talk about kids wanting to leave, the situations they are facing are similar. Kidder presents in great detail the many different children in the class and their extreme challenges, such as disobedience, disrespect, fighting, and learning disabilities. The reader feels as if he or she is actually in the classroom setting.
Showing what it is like to learn and teach in a poor area is the best aspect of the book. Kidder does an excellent job revealing how students respond to Mrs. Zajac’s positive teaching style. In describing one student’s positive reaction, Kidder writes, “He’d make a drawing for her, or write an anonymous love note, and for a while tiptoe around her, saying his pleases and thank-yous…He liked her too and he needed her” (159). Mrs. Zajac helps students overcome their tough home lives and balance this with successful schoolwork. Many students have rough home lives in both the book and the movie; many students “looked shabby and dejected” at first, but after Mrs. Zajac helped them and taught them many looked “neat and pert” (77). This is the biggest difference between Among Schoolchildren and Waiting for Superman because Mrs. Zajac is an incredible teacher who truly cares about her students. Waiting for Superman talks more about what teachers need to do in order to improve, rather than focusing on the amazing teachers.
While Among Schoolchildren opened my eyes to what school would be like in a poor environment, it is overly repetitive when talking about each child. Chapter two of the “Homework” section (72-107) is spent explaining what each child got on a test and why Mrs. Zajac believes they received their scores. While it is important to explain grades and expectations, it does not need to take up this much space.
Mrs. Zajac has a difficult time getting a student named Clarence to put in effort to learn. She spends many hours after class working with him and many hours on the weekend worrying about him. Kidder shows the reader how much teachers care about their students and how they will do all they can to help them improve. Much of the “Sent Away” section of the book is spent talking about how to help Clarence and what would be the best way to help him learn. It is eventually decided that Clarence will leave Mrs. Zajac’s class and go to a class called “Alpha.” Mrs. Zajac sends Clarence “into a notorious group of troublemakers” (185). Here Kidder shows that even the best of teachers can feel like they fail their students. Mrs. Zajac “thought about Robert. ‘He’s my failure, I guess. Him and Clarence.’” Clarence is just one example of the difficult students in Mrs. Zajac’s classroom. By giving detailed descriptions of the back and forth between Mrs. Zajac and her difficult students, Kidder reveals the hard truth of teaching.
Among Schoolchildren shows the reader the difficult side of schooling in a poor city. Kidder’s detailed descriptions reveal the positives and negatives of teaching and learning in this environment. Most importantly, the book portrays how teachers truly care about their students and try to do everything they can for them. ~ Student: Brianna W.