Among School Children Summary

Tracy Kidder

Among School Children

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Among School Children Summary

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Pulitzer Prize winning American writer Tracy Kidder is a literary journalist whose works are noted for their narrative qualities. His 1989 release Among School Children chronicles the nine months that Kidder spent in the fifth grade classroom of Christine Zajac at the Kelly School in Holyoke, Massachusetts. He tells of Zajac and her dedication to her twenty students, and of their successes and tribulations, as he examines education in America.

Kidder explains the obstacles faced by Zajac as a teacher in a poor area of the country. In so doing, he also delivers a commentary on the education system of the United States as a whole. The story begins in September as Zajac meets her new group of students for the school year. The children quickly become aware that their teacher is kind and will be fair with them, but at the same time she is a tough taskmaster and will push them to their highest potential. One of the first students with whom she immediately feels a connection is Clarence, an African American boy. Shortly into the first week of the school year, she sees that Clarence cannot sit still or concentrate, and that he is producing no homework. She attempts to remedy this by having him come to her after school and not allowing him to participate in recess.

Clarence will not be the only challenging student with whom Zajac will be working. Robert is a boy who is prone to self-harm as an attention getting device. Pedro has developmental disabilities, and Jimmy tends to fall asleep while in class. Meanwhile, there is Judith, a very bright girl of Puerto Rican descent who is from the depressed area known as the Flats. Working with Judith helps Zajac stay grounded amidst the turmoil she needs to keep in check throughout the classroom. Zajac’s student teacher, Ms. Hunt, is rightfully impressed with her mentor’s classroom management skills. Kidder points out the difficulties involved in training to be a teacher. In spite of college programs and student teaching experiences, teachers often first enter a classroom not fully prepared for what lies ahead. Kidder calls for an increased commitment nationwide to better teacher training so that they will be better able to teach students like Clarence and Robert right from the start.

As the school year unfolds, Clarence becomes more and more difficult to control. He begins inflicting physical harm on other students. His actions serve to disrupt the class and also make the year increasingly stressful for his teacher. Zajac tries everything she can to make things work for Clarence but to no avail. Eventually the boy is removed from the class by the administration. Zajac cannot help but feel that she has failed with Clarence. If there is a positive to come from this, it is that she can now focus more of her attention on helping the rest of her class. She turns her attention to Claude who has not begun to make progress thus far in the year. She begins to push him whereas earlier that time was spent on Clarence.

Kidder does not simply describe the day to day workings of the classroom, but also attempts to exemplify what he sees as inequalities in American education and the role that ethnicity plays in that. He realizes that he is observing a teacher with remarkable dedication to her craft and her students. He also accepts the reality that not all teachers share this level of commitment and may give up on a child rather than persevere and try to make a difference. Students do not have much of a chance in an environment that lacks teacher and parental support. He links this to the socioeconomic class of the student, which can create conditions that education is not equipped to offset on its own. As the school year nears an end, Zajac, on the one hand, is pleased with the amount of progress that some of her students made. On the other hand, she also finds herself feeling frustrated because the changes have not been more profound. She realizes, however, that the level of progress was not on the low side due to any lack of effort on her part, but rather that she ran out of time in the school year.

The New York Times, in assessing Among School Children, called for a wider view on the part of Kidder, suggesting that, “it would have been useful to venture further outside the framework of one classroom, and the example of one untypical teacher. As one reads about the terrible circumstances in which many of the children live, there are questions that beg to be asked. Should schools in fact be restructured to take on more functions of the families that are so often missing? Are teachers like Mrs. Zajac a fluke of individual temperament, or can they be trained and encouraged? The situation that Mr. Kidder describes is so familiar as to seem acceptable, but it is also extreme. He does not underplay the problems, but he wants to reassure us that there is some hope, dedication and heart amid the wreckage. It is a needed and instructive message, but one that does not go far enough.”