Education Commentary

Among Schoolchildren

By Tracy Kidder — September 01, 1989 17 min read

Mrs. Zajac is strict. “She is mean bro,” says one of her former students. But there is no doubt she cares about every boy and girl in her classroom. There’s Pedro, who tries so hard to please hiss teacher. And Felipe, who almost always says goodbye to Mrs. Zajac before going home—even if he is angry with her. And Claude, who can come up with the most imaginative excuses for not doing his homework. And Judith, a brilliant Puerto Rican girl with long, dark, curly hair. Mrs. Zajac even cares about Clarence, one of the most difficult students she has ever taught.

Tracy Kidder, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Soul of a New Machine and House, spent a year with Chris Zajac’s 5th grade class at the Kelly School in Holyoke, Mass. In this excerpt from Among Schoolchidren, Kidder’s intimate account of that year, Zajac sits at her dining room table correcting papers. Earlier, Kidder sets the scene:

“Here many problems seemed manageable, or at least she could imagine that she had time to work on every child’s problems. As the evening wore on ad she felt the first wave of sleepiness, she would lift her eyes from a student’s paper and the child’s face would rise, too. She could see the face of the child whose paper she corrected, the child’s face framed against the blackened panes of the small, many-mullioned windows of the dining room.”

The house was very quiet. From upstairs came the sound of Kate, Chris’s infant daughter, whimpering. Chris looked up from the shrunken pile of social studies tests. She glanced toward the kitchen. The clock on the wall there read 8:30. “She’s a little late.” Kate usually cried at 8:15. Chris left her class in the dining room, took a glass of water upstairs, and helped Kate take a sip. Now Kate would sleep through the rest of the night.

Chris sat down again at the table. Pedro’s test lay on the top of the pile. She read,

Tory. Like a grup of sogrs.

Chris placed her hand like a visor on her forehead. She stared at the blackened window across the room and slowly shook her head. “Poor kid.”

Pedro had a happy-looking walk. He was short and dark-skinned. His head and torso swayed from side to side, in a sailor’s rolling gait, and he smiled with his bulging mouth half opened, so cheerfully and perkily it made her marvel. He didn’t seem to know how sad he ought to be. She recalled the end of a day when the walkers stood at the door, and Felipe was again holding forth about how he yearned to become an astronaut, and little Pedro had touched Felipe’s arm and said, “Someday, Felipe, your dream will come true.”

Pedro’s voice was deep out of all proportion to his size, and his voice had a garbled sound, as if his mouth were full of water, but sometimes perfect lines like that came out and made Chris wonder if Pedro really was, as she’d begun to think, mildly retarded. But maybe it was just the sound of Pedro’s voice, the fact that he could speak at all that was surprising. He didn’t often talk. He never misbehaved. He almost always tried to do his homework. It was as another teacher had said: “Poor Pedro. He works so hard to get an F.” His situation had seemed intolerable to Chris the very first day when, after assigning some simple class work, she stopped to look over Pedro’s shoulder, and he looked up at her and asked, “Did I do good, Mrs. Zajac?”

“You did very well, Pedro!” It wasn’t entirely untrue; here in 5th grade, he could do some of the work expected of a 2nd grader.

Then Pedro smiled up at her. His gums were very red and his teeth were covered with braces that resembled little checkerboards. Almost every morning, he offered her that red-gummed, metallic smile, but some days, before the lessons started, she looked up and saw Pedro weeping at his desk. No sound came out. Tears dripped off his chin. She would lead him by the hand to the office, the little-mannish boy gasping for breath, his wet eyes wide in terror. “I can’t breathe, Mrs. Zajac. I can’t breathe.” She’d turn him over to the chief secretary, Lil, and one of the outreach workers would drive him home, and then days, sometimes a whole week or two, would pass, and his desk would sit empty, before she’d see him again, walking up Bowers Street toward school. Pedro would wave to her and grin when she waved back.

Chris might have gone all year without knowing much about Pedro’s life away from school, but that first question he’d asked her—”Did I do good, Mrs. Zajac?”—had sent her bustling to the office the second day of school, to get the forms to start a “core evaluation” of Pedro.

A “core,” as it was usually called—the student was the apple—involved a lot of paperwork and protocol, which always made the process lengthy, and an investigation of a child’s background and a battery of psychological and intelligence tests. Eventually, a meeting would occur, and various administrators and teachers and experts would lay out a program for addressing a child’s problems. In Chris’s experience, the diagnoses were usually better than the cures. Most cores ended with an optimistic, carefully thought out “individualized ed. plan,” which in practice meant that the child left his regular classroom for an hour or so each day for the Resource Room, where a specialist in learning disabilities would begin to put that plan into operation. But at Kelly, more than 40 children with more than 40 ed. plans went to the Resource Room teacher and her aide every day, and the poor woman who ran that room simply couldn’t do it all. Chris didn’t know much about what went on in there, but it wasn’t miracles, clearly. Three boys from her class went, and she couldn’t see any effect.

Chris thought that the wrong children often got, as the saying went, “cored” and sent to the Resource Room, children whose main problem with school seemed to be behavior, not ability. The Resource Room teacher remarked, “It’s something of a dumping ground. I hate to say it, but it is.” Nevertheless, a core was the only remedy available for Pedro. At least the testing might reveal whether or not Pedro really was retarded, and maybe it would give Chris some ideas about what she could do for him. But why hadn’t there been a core evaluation of Pedro already? That question really bothered her. Was it because teachers had lost faith in cores, or was it because Pedro didn’t cause trouble? Teachers had their hands full. Every class had disruptive children. It was easy enough to forget about a child like Pedro. In her time, she had forgotten some. From here in her dining room, Chris pictured this little boy sitting quietly at his desk, day after day, year after year, learning almost nothing, not even understanding half of what was said, and never complaining. She didn’t like to criticize the schools, but that just wasn’t right.

An administrator in the office had said that if Chris could get Pedro’s mother—Pedro talked about a mother at home—to sign papers for a core, the process would be speeded up. So when the first parent conferences had come around, Chris had leaned on Pedro. Twice she gave him conference slips to take home. He brought back the first unsigned. The second slip came back with a note in Spanish on the bottom.

Chris took the note to Victor Guevara, the Puerto Rican teacher next door.

Looking at Chris gravely, Victor said, “I think it says, `I am sick with high blood pressure. I can’t walk much. I want to die.”’

“Oh, God!” said Chris.

Chris quick-marched to the office. She gave the note to Al Laudato, the principal. It was a story Chris would repeat at home to her husband Billy and on evening walks with her good friend Winnie and maybe would tell for years to come.

Al wasn’t pleased about the note. Was his school turning into a total social service agency? But Al called the police, who told him to call the suicide prevention center, who told him they couldn’t act unless the potential victim asked explicitly for help. After saying to Chris, “Now, you gotta remember who we are here,” Al dispatched the guidance counselor—Kelly School had only one for about 600 students then—to Pedro’s apartment house in the Flats.

Pedro lived on a littered, half-demolished street, behind an entry door with busted locks, up four flights of graffiti-covered stairwell that smelled of urine, in an apartment that was as clean as anyone could have made it, but that had unreliable heat and hot water, windowpanes that rattled in the wind, and lots of old woodwork painted dark brown, the favorite color of landlords. (One local house painter got so much call for that color that he kept large batches of it ready-mixed, in cans he labeled “Holyoke Brown.”)

The scene in the apartment, as it was described to Chris on the counselor’s return, was odd. Inside were a transvestite uncle of Pedro’s and Pedro’s tiny 69-year-old grandmother, the person Pedro called his mother. “I got four stepmothers,” Pedro later explained. “My father never gets married with women. He don’t like it. I got a whole lot of brothers. Like six. But they all from different mothers. Only three of us are Pedro—my little brother, my father, and me.” It was hard sometimes to get the gist of Pedro’s talk; he didn’t have full command of any language; he knew less Spanish than English. Pedro said, “I was born and raised with my grandmother, because I was cryin’ too much. And they took me to my grandmother, and my grandmother was takin’ care of me, and my father gave my mother money, and my mother went to the circus. And sometime my mother used to come there without no shoes.”

Pedro’s grandmother had meant what she’d written in the note. Her husband had died at her age, so she believed her time to die had come. She said her favorite son had died some years ago of a heroin overdose and visited her bedside in the nighttime now. She spent her days cleaning, trying to scrub away years of grime from the apartment, and had left those rooms so infrequently the last four years that she could name every occasion. She had only one friend in the building, a woman so depressed herself that she seemed bound to die soon, too.

Hearing all that, Chris permitted herself a useless thought: She’d take Pedro home with her.

But the worst didn’t happen. Kelly School’s counselor got a caseworker to visit the grandmother, and two days later, Pedro’s uncle and grandmother got dressed up and walked over to the school to talk to Mrs. Zajac. Chris sat down with them and an interpreter in the vice principal’s office, the tiny grandmother with her long gray hair tied back, wearing a simple dress with faded flowers on it, and Pedro’s uncle in a leather vest, a tight white miniskirt, and black mesh stockings. Chris felt as if she were at a strange tea party, sitting on the edge of her chair and smiling brightly, and they all agreed that Pedro should bring his respiratory medicines to school, and a note requesting the core was drafted, which the old grandmother signed. She chuckled as she penned her name. The old woman seemed greatly cheered up.

But still there was no news about Pedro’s core. Chris saw the boy walking in his perky way, in the mornings, up Bowers Street, ambling happily along toward another day of academic failure, and she thought that the strength of some children was amazing. Pedro just didn’t know how hard his life was, but he’d be a teenager soon, and then he would, and the comfort dispensed by drug dealers would be waiting for him, Chris was afraid, if she didn’t get him some help now. Chris told herself, “O.K., it’s sad. Now what am I going to do about it?” But she was giving Pedro all the time she had to spare in class, and he still wasn’t even spelling the spelling words right.

In her dining room, Chris wrote on her sheet of yellow note pad, where she made her lists of things to do for tomorrow: “Check on Pedro’s core!!!”

“36 = F,” Chris wrote on Pedro’s social studies test. If she was not honest, she would never have tangible evidence of progress or decline. Judith’s test came up next in the pile.

Tory. A person that didn’t think we should breakaway from England. John Adams. A fellow patriot that was one of the Sons of Liberty. He was the second president of the United States. He was one of the Signers of the Declaration of Independence. He was one of the Representatives of the United States with France. He helped fight the Revolutionary War.

“100 = A+ Super!” Chris wrote across the top of the paper.

Sometimes in the classroom, when Chris was smiling surreptitiously—at one of Claude’s homework excuses, say—she would look up and notice Judith, turned around in her chair and smiling, too, at Chris’s efforts not to smile. Judith, usually the first to finish any assignment in class, would read while the others worked, and if while she was reading, Judith’s neighbor Alice touched her arm or whispered her name, Judith would make a little jump in her seat and clap a hand to her chest. “You scared me!” Judith had great powers of concentration, but she also seemed to be aware of everybody in the room and of what everyone was feeling, including Chris.

“Oh, Clarence, I’m so tired!” Chris remembered saying one afternoon, and there was Judith, turned around in her seat, looking at Chris.

“You look tired,” Judith said.

“Oh, Judith, now I have to study fractions over the weekend. It’s all your math group’s fault.”

“Students have to do homework,” said Judith. “Why shouldn’t teachers?”

“Oh, Judith, I’m so tired!”

“I don’t blame you,” said Judith. “I’d rather go in the Army than be a teacher.”

“I don’t know about that.” Chris sat up, somewhat invigorated.

“Well,” said Judith, “you got a battle here every day.” And Judith hunched her shoulders like Miss Hunt, the student teacher, and gave Chris a lovely grin.

That story Judith wrote about having to move to the Flats from her family’s last, nice little house, and the part of the essay about her mother sitting on the porch steps and Judith sitting down beside her, and neither of them speaking but each one knowing just how sad the other felt—that was an essay by an adult. “This girl is about as mature as I am,” Chris thought: “And smarter.”

Judith’s eyes fascinated Chris. It was possible to imagine that they were centuries old, the eyes of an ancient soul in a girl’s body. In fact, Judith’s eyes were slightly myopic, a secret that Judith, who didn’t want glasses, had kept from all of her other teachers and, for a while, from Chris.

Judith had moonlit skin, a thin figure, and brown curly hair, which she kept very long, because her father was an old-fashioned Puerto Rican of the countryside, a jibaro, and he insisted that his daughters wear their hair long, until they got married. Judith tied it up artfully with lacy ribbons. She was physically a year older than most of her classmates—12 instead of 10 or 11. Judith hadn’t started school until she was seven. But the main reason she seemed much older than the rest probably lay elsewhere. Judith could not remember a time when she hadn’t been fluent in both English and Spanish. She had served, from the age of about eight, as her parents’ main interpreter to the Englishspeaking world, at stores and clinics and welfare and housing offices. So she knew firsthand about the ailments, financial worries, and humiliations of immigrant adults stuck in poverty.

Chris had noticed that praise made Judith shy. It had taken Chris a while to realize that because Judith was even smart about being smart. When she got an A on a paper, which was usually, Judith put it away in her desk before her classmates could see it. Judith felt that her teachers had always praised her too openly. “I like the way I do good in school, but I don’t like overpraising. It makes me feel like, like the other kids look at me like someone else. So I try to do good in school, yeah, and I do try to be like a kid, you know?”

But Chris knew Judith’s life was more confined than any child’s ought to be. Judith lived down in the Flats, in a housing project of gray three-story units. Her father didn’t feel free, Chris realized, to let her walk the few blocks to school, as most children did without incident. Her father drove her to and fro, carrying Judith from one safe place, as safe as he could make it, to another.

Judith read a great deal, and she knew a fair amount about politics and geography. Judith said that she did well in school because she chose to do so, and that was because she wanted to get a good job when she grew up. But it sometimes seemed that her world was even smaller than the Flats itself. She said, for instance, thinking about her future, “I’m not gonna be livin’ off welfare.” She added, “Like most people.”

Kelly School was right next door to what is called the Five College Area, but Judith had not yet heard of Smith, Mount Holyoke, or Amherst colleges.

From her classroom windows in the crisp, dying days of fall, Chris would watch her students at recess on the playground below. She looked out to see if Clarence was in a hitting mood, and to see which children were making friends. Through the window, about a month ago, Chris had begun to see Judith hanging around in a group that included a very tough 13-year-old 5th grader from another homeroom, a pretty girl with a dirty neck, who leered at handsome boys and was often seen sitting on the bad-boy chairs outside Al’s office. One day that fall, through her classroom window, Chris saw that girl stuff some clothes under her coat at recess and promenade around, pantomiming pregnancy, while a small group of girls, which included Judith, watched. It looked as though Judith was laughing.

A while back Chris had bragged about Judith to a teacher friend. The friend had asked, “Have you considered moving her up to 6th grade?” Chris decided she should do that right away. Losing Judith from this class would be like losing an adult friend. The thought of the room without her made Chris feel bereft, and that made Chris feel it was her duty to promote Judith. She’d get Judith away from that tough girl and shorten the number of dangerous years between Judith and college.

The vice principal, Paul, talked Chris out of the idea. Wasn’t Judith doing well? Didn’t she seem happy? Paul asked. Chris was willing to be persuaded to keep Judith.

Every other day in Holyoke, a teenage girl was giving birth. Someone on the staff had carelessly remarked that Judith would probably get pregnant in a few years. But Chris refused to believe that.

“Judith, come here,” Chris had said when class was winding up one day early in the fall. Judith came with her cheek laid against her right shoulder. “What do you want to be?”

Judith laughed.

“Do you want to go to college?”

Judith looked around her. The other children were getting their coats and weren’t noticing. “Yes.”

“Good,” said Chris. “You should. You’re a smart girl. If you keep working hard, you’ll get a nice scholarship. So keep it up. O.K.?”

Chris had been feeling very optimistic about Judith since the parent conferences. Judith’s father had attended. He looked much older and less prepossessing than Chris had imagined him. He wasn’t much taller than Judith. He wore rough work clothes. He spoke softly in Spanish.

Judith stood beside her father at the front table and translated into Spanish Chris’s words of praise for her.

“Tell your father that you’re an excellent student, Judith.”

Judith obeyed. She seemed to be trying not to smile at the absurdity of it all.

Chris brought up college. Judith’s father spoke. Judith said, “He says that maybe I can get a scholarship.”

“Yes!” shouted Chris.

It was during that conference when Chris decided she hadn’t understood the full extent of Judith’s gifts. The girl had a huge English vocabulary and her parents didn’t even speak the language. For Chris, there was no question now. This was the brightest child she had ever tried to teach.

When Debbie, the librarian and director of the reading program, came asking for children who could be spared to help out in the library, Chris volunteered Judith, during spelling. Judith didn’t need spelling lessons. Then Chris decided to send Alice, who would certainly be going to college, along with Judith to the library, to keep Judith company. Pretty soon—Chris could have predicted it—Debbie was leaving Judith and Alice to run the library by themselves, for half an hour in the mornings. Chris was afraid that Judith might get bored with school. Chris made sure to spend some time with her every day. But it didn’t feel like enough. Chris kept looking at Judith and thinking, “If only I had more time.”

When was it exactly that Chris noticed something wrong with Judith’s eyes? Probably that time when Chris wrote a sentence on the board and, while turning to watch Clarence, asked Judith to read it aloud. Judith made just a quick squint when she must have thought Mrs. Zajac wasn’t looking. But Chris saw the squint from the corner of her eye. Chris pounced. For weeks now, Chris had been cornering Judith near the door at the end of the day, cutting her out from the herd of other walkers and saying, “Judith, you’d look so pretty in glasses!”

Judith would lift her eyes to heaven, put her hands on her hips, shake her head, and smile at Mrs. Zajac. The girl was still resisting, but the struggle was fun, and it seemed worth the effort, if only for its symbolism. It was something Chris could do for Judith, who was always doing something for Chris.

From Among Schoolchildren, to be published by Houghton Mifflin in September. Copyright © 1989, by Tracy Kidder.
A version of this article appeared in the September 01, 1989 edition of Teacher as Among Schoolchildren