Thanks to Tracy Kidder, the acclaimed writer, hundreds of thousands of people have gotten to know a wonderful teacher named Chris Zajac.
Thirteen years ago, Kidder, who lives in Springfield, Massachusetts, set out to write a book about an elementary school teacher. The school superintendent of nearby Holyoke recommended Zajac, a 34-year-old 5th grade teacher with a reputation for being tough, fair, and dedicated. Kidder spent a year sitting in the back of the teacher’s classroom at Kelly Elementary School. He scribbled 10,000 pages of notes, which he turned into a 340-page gem of a book called Among Schoolchildren. Published in 1989 and excerpted in our first issue, it became a national bestseller, and, for a while at least, Zajac became one of the most famous teachers in America.
Now 47 and an assistant principal at Sullivan Elementary School in Holyoke, Zajac has fond memories of her time in the limelight. “I enjoyed it,” she says. “I met lots of different people, and they were all so good to me.” She frankly admits that the whole thing “was an ego-enhancing experience.” She appeared on Good Morning America and the MacNeil /Lehrer NewsHour. She flew around the country giving speeches to teacher organizations. When Among Schoolchildren won the Robert F. Kennedy Book Award, Zajac traveled with Kidder to Washington, D.C., to attend the prize ceremony. She even spent a few days with a screenwriter from Steven Spielberg’s production company. “But nothing ever came of that,” she says.
And then, after about a year and a half of celebrity, Zajac decided enough was enough. “I knew it was time to move on,” she says. “To tell you the truth, I was sick of hearing my own voice. It was a great time, though, a period of reflection that a lot of professionals don’t get.”
The book, however, has had a life of its own. It is still required reading in many teacher-training classes, and it has been translated into Dutch, Italian, Japanese, Chinese, and Korean. Even Zajac’s son, who just finished his freshman year in college, read it for one of his courses, to the amusement-and delight-of his mother. “A few of the kids asked him, ‘Is that your mother?’ He said yes, and they said, ‘We can’t believe you didn’t tell us.’''
When Zajac runs into people who have read the book, they usually want to know what happened to certain students: like Pedro, the boy who, as Zajac put it so memorably, “works so hard to get an F"; or Judith, the brilliant Puerto Rican girl with long, dark, curly hair; or Clarence, one of the most difficult students she ever taught.
“I lost track of most of them,” she says. “It’s a big school system. I know that Judith had a baby, and the kid is about to go into kindergarten. Clarence ended up in jail, but I don’t know how he got there, and I don’t know if he’s still there.” About two years after Among Schoolchildren came out, Clarence, then 14, came back to visit Zajac. He had read the book and wanted to apologize for causing her so much grief. “I told him that wasn’t necessary,” she says.
Zajac remains in touch with Kidder and read his last two books-Old Friends and Home Town-with great interest, having spent a year under the writer’s microscopic gaze. “I especially liked Home Town,” she says of Kidder’s most recent work, about the lives of ordinary people in nearby Northampton. She remains a huge fan. “I guess when it’s not about you, you appreciate his writing even more.” Kidder recently sent Zajac a copy of Among Schoolchildren translated into Japanese. “Thought you might enjoy this version,” he wrote.
Zajac first read Among Schoolchildren when it was still in manuscript. Then, a few years later, she started it again but couldn’t finish it. “I cringed every time I was quoted,” she says. “I would think, Why did I say that?” Now, however, she thinks of the book as “a written history of a part of my life.” Eventually, she says, she’ll read it again.
It is not, she insists, a “how to” book. “When it came out, some of the reviews made me out to be a saint, and I’m not,” she says. “It was a book about an average teacher, and that’s how it should be read.”
Maybe so. But if Tracy Kidder had wanted to write a book about an average schoolteacher, he probably wouldn’t have chosen Chris Zajac. She remains an inspiration to anyone who has ever stood in front of a classroom full of exuberant, wide-eyed schoolchildren.
A version of this article appeared in the August 01, 1999 edition of Teacher