The Teacher and The Writer

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It is mid-June, and Chris Zajac is sitting in the enclosed porch of her two-story, red brick house in Holyoke, Mass. The day before, her last day of classes, 102 Holyoke teachers—all without tenure—were laid off because of budget cutbacks. “Black Monday,” some teachers are calling it. Zajac, however, a 16-year veteran, will return in the fall to the Sullivan Elementary School, where she is in charge of reading and writing instruction. She can't imagine not teaching. “The classroom is a place where I feel I can be me,” she says. In her living room is a small needlepoint that says, “To Teach Is To Touch A Life Forever.”

Three years ago, Zajac, then 34 and a 5th grade teacher at Kelly Elementary School, was at a party when the school superintendent told her that a writer by the name of Tracy Kidder wanted to write a book about a teacher in Holyoke. “The name rung a bell, but I had never read anything by him,” she says. Zajac laughed at the book proposal. “Don't laugh,” the superintendent told her. “Your name is on the list.” (Kidder had asked him for a list of the five best elementary schoolteachers in Holyoke.) Zajac quickly went out and bought one of his books.

Kidder is not exactly a garden-variety journalist. He practices a sort of microscopic journalism, rich in detail and nuance. For his Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Soul of a New Machine, Kidder spent eight months tracing the development of a new computer at Data General Corporation. In his next book, simply titled House, he told the story—from the initial planning to the finished product—of one couple building their first house. A dull topic for a book? Here is what Anne Tyler, writing in The Boston Globe, had to say about it: “A cliffhanger. I read it in one sitting.”

Kidder, who lives about 20 miles north of Holyoke in Williamsburg, says he got the idea for Among Schoolchildren from several friends who are schoolteachers. “I wasn't all that eager at first,” he says. “But I know quite a few teachers, and when they started to talk about what they did they would get very animated. It seemed like there was the possibility of a good story in the life of a teacher.”

Zajac, Kidder says, came “highly recommended.” When he first talked to her about the possibility of doing the book, she seemed willing to participate—not a small consideration for an author who delves into the lives of his subjects as deeply as Kidder does.

When he phoned her a month later and said, “What do you think?” Zajac had to think long and hard. “Will I have someone follow me around for a whole year?” she asked herself. Her husband, Billy, a writer and editor for the Holyoke Transcript-Telegram, convinced her that she should go through with the project. “He thought it was a good opportunity,” she says. “I always felt people didn't know how hard teachers truly worked. So he said, `Put your money where your mouth is and show them how hard they work.' I guess that's basically why I did it.”

Anyone who reads Among Schoolchildren will see that Chris Zajac is a hard worker and a dedicated teacher. She wears many hats: She is simultaneously a teacher, a disciplinarian, a social worker, a psychologist, and a cheerleader. Many of her students are disadvantaged, requiring special attention. And no matter how hard she tries, there is never enough time to get everything done.

Teaching 5th grade is hard enough without someone sitting in the back of the class writing down everything that you say and do. Zajac says that for the first several weeks, she tried to be “absolutely perfect” under Kidder's watchful eye. “But I'm far from perfect, and the kids are far from perfect,” she says. “And I guess after that I felt like, `Look, he's going to see who I am and what I am, and I'm not going to put up a facade for a whole year and neither can the kids.' After I decided, `Hey, buddy, you're just along for the ride,' it wasn't bad at all. There were times when I would discipline a kid and I would be upset about it, and Tracy would say, `Why did you do this?' or `Why did you ask him that?' and I would have to constantly give reasons why I did things.

“But it was very good for me,” she adds. “It was a lot of self-analysis and a lot of self-evaluating, and it helped me. He's very easy to get along with. My husband calls him `the chameleon.”'

“I was kind of shocked by her at first,” Kidder says of Zajac. “She was so tough. She took a little bit of getting used to. It took me a while to figure out what she was trying to do.” Zajac, he realized, was tough but not mean, and her toughness was part of what made her such a good teacher. “I guess I am strict,” Zajac says. “The teachers who affected me the most were the ones who expected a lot out of me.”

Kidder had a nearly perfect attendance record: He spent all but two days in Zajac's class that year, scribbling down everything he saw and heard. By the time it was over, he had written 10,000 pages of notes. “That's twice as many as for House,” he says. “I just didn't want to miss anything.” The sheer volume of notes created problems when he began putting it all together. “This was a very difficult book to write. I had a first draft that was over 1,000 pages long.”

He asked Zajac to read the completed manuscript—not for her approval but to make sure everything was accurate. He succeeded on both counts. “I probably read it in a different light than other people would read it,” Zajac says. “First of all, I read it to see if I looked foolish, or if I did anything that was educationally terrible that somebody would just tear apart. And secondly, I read it to see if it would hurt anybody that I had taught—would someone be insulted by it? And I didn't feel that either of those things happened in the book. And then I read it again and I really liked it. It's accurate. It really is accurate. And I always wondered how Tracy would take 180 school days and make them into a book—first of all, to make them into a book that was interesting, to people other than educators. And he did it. It really is amazing.”

Vol. 01, Issue 01, Pages 76-78

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