By Dirk Mathison
October 09, 1989 12:00 PM

On his first day as a student in Mrs. Zajac’s fifth-grade classroom in Holyoke, Mass., Tracy Kidder came equipped with fresh pens, an empty notebook and a serious case of new-kid jitters. “I had that nervousness you feel as a guest,” he says. “I didn’t want to intrude.” But like the Harvard-educated, Pulitzer Prize-winning adult that he is, Kidder stuck to his task, returning the next morning and the next. “I only missed two days all year—one I was sick, the other I played hooky,” says Kidder, 43, who sat at an adult-size desk next to the teacher’s. “I didn’t want to miss anything that would happen in the classroom.”

Judging from Among Schoolchildren, Kidder’s newly published account of that year, he missed very little. The book is a meticulously observed portrait of a group of grade-school students and the teacher who spent 10 months trying, against daunting odds, to impart to them not only spelling and fractions, but a sense that their opinions have weight. Critics have praised Kidder for providing a clear-eyed look at American education in microcosm; readers touched by the triumphs and missteps of the children at Kelly School have already made the book a best-seller. And Christine Zajac, who should know best, thinks Kidder has done first-rate work. “It’s very accurate—even my mannerisms,” she says. “As much as I cringe, it’s me.”

It was Kidder’s curiosity about teachers like Zajac that first lured him back to the classroom. “I noticed that teachers became very animated when talking about their classes,” he says. “There was a passion there.” Ever since researching The Soul of a New Machine, his 1982 Pulitzer Prize-winning account of a company’s struggle to design a computer, Kidder has appreciated that “people spend most of their waking hours at work.” His special talent is to make that workaday world come alive.

Observing a teacher on the job seemed a fitting sequel to Soul and to House, Kidder’s 1985 chronicle of the building of a home. (He now calls the books his “work trilogy.”) So Kidder obtained the names of five teachers from the superintendent of schools in Holyoke, a small industrial city near Williamsburg, Mass., where Kidder lives with his wife, Fran, an artist, and their two children. Kidder chose Zajac, then 34, an energetic 13-year veteran. “She was willing,” he says, “and she was perfect.” Says Zajac, who has two children of her own: “I had always said people didn’t know how hard teachers work. My husband said it was time I put my money where my mouth was.”

At first, says Zajac, “I tried to make my kids perfect. Then I relaxed.” The students—whose names have been changed in the book—were told what Kidder was doing but soon grew accustomed to his presence. As the year progressed, Kidder filled 100 notebooks with the daily dramas in room 205. He watched Judith, a shy but brilliant girl, blossom into a leader, and he documented the sad, vain struggle of Clarence to curb his emotional outbursts before being shipped out to a special class.

Gradually, Kidder’s respect for Zajac turned to awe. Divorce, drugs, unemployment, racial tensions and parental neglect plagued the world outside her classroom. Yet Zajac never lost faith that she could make a difference in her students’ lives. “She was very strict,” Kidder says, “but she couldn’t have been kinder.” His book, he says, is meant to convey a sense of the enormousness of her task, not to offer solutions to America’s educational problems, as some critics suggested it should have. “You can treat a serious subject like education much better by writing about live bodies,” Kidder maintains. “Education is usually a woman in a room dealing with a youthful distillate of a town, taking on problems she hasn’t been trained to deal with. I’d like the reader to realize that’s no easy job.”

Kidder realized that long ago. His mother, Reine, to whom Schoolchildren is dedicated, was a high school English teacher in Syosset, N.Y. His father, Henry, was an equally dedicated attorney. “My father always worked hard, always got up early,” recalls Kidder, who grew up in Manhattan. “I still have that Puritan ethic that if I get to work by 6 or 7 in the morning, everything will be all right.”

An excellent student, Kidder liked school and learned early that “the teachers who seemed the strictest and scariest usually turned out to be the nicest—like Mrs. Zajac did.” He did not think about writing for a living until his undergraduate years at Harvard, when he concluded that “it would be a good way to meet girls.” Later, after a year as an Army intelligence officer in Vietnam, he attended the Writers’ Workshop at the University of Iowa. His first book, The Road to Yuba City, went virtually unnoticed. But his nonfiction pieces for the Atlantic Monthly impressed one of the magazine’s editors, Richard Todd, who suggested he look into computers. Writing Soul taught Kidder that “subjects which seem to be the most powerful intrinsically—murders and trials and all—aren’t necessarily,” he says. “There’s a whole part of life that’s more common that’s very interesting.”

It can also be humbling. “I could never walk into a class and teach it—I would be terrified,” Kidder says. “We ought to be glad there are Mrs. Zajacs around.”

—Kim Hubbard, Dirk Mathison in Massachusetts