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A Year in the Life of a Fifth Grade

Tracy Kidder records one teacher's joys, frustrations, and the day-to-day rhythms of her class. BOOKS

AMONG SCHOOLCHILDREN by Tracy Kidder, Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 340 pp., $19.95.

CHRIS ZAJAC is the sort of caring, involved schoolteacher that almost any child would be fortunate to have. She is dedicated to her calling, willing to give inordinate amounts of personal time to her work, and sensitive to the needs of the individual children in her fifth-grade class.

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Yet many students in her Holyoke, Mass., classroom end the year without making much progress. Many bear the markings of youngsters who, within a few years, may drop out of school. More than 30 percent of the school's sixth graders failed a basic skills test, and almost all in the failing group were from impoverished families, many of them Puerto Rican.

This is the world Tracy Kidder has chosen to describe in ``Among Schoolchildren,'' a title that shares a certain irony with an identically entitled poem by W.B. Yeats, who at the age of 60 explored his roots in the timeless milieu of a schoolroom. Mrs. Zajac - ``Ajax'' to some of the wise-guy boys - is the teacher among these 20 schoolchildren, and despite her determination and energy, many will not make it. This is a book for anyone who wants a better feel for the day-to-day rhythm of the classroom.

Readers will arrive at the end of a chronological journey through an entire school year with a greater understanding of the advantages and disadvantages that students bring with them to school from home. There is, for instance, Pedro, who lives with a transvestite uncle and a tiny, 69-year-old grandmother he calls his mother. ``I got four stepmothers,'' Pedro said. ``My father never gets married with women.''

This is not to say that the cause is hopeless and schools should not do better despite the socioeconomic backgrounds of their students. Kidder offers no apologia. But so much that happens to the children in Room 205 at Kelly School seems beyond the control of Mrs. Zajac or the school. She tries her best, keeping expectations high and acting humanely:

``You were supposed to raise your hand before you asked or answered a question during one of Mrs. Zajac's lessons. If you didn't raise your hand, she would probably call on you. You could count on that. But she gave you a lot of time to answer and she wouldn't get angry if you couldn't, unless you hadn't been paying attention, and she wouldn't let your classmates make fun of you.''

Perhaps Mrs. Zajac could improve her pedagogy, but Kidder never fully delves into the teaching possibilities that might motivate the students and help them be more effective learners.

The reader is the silent classroom observer who comes to know Mrs. Zajac, a softhearted disciplinarian, is an intense woman whose life is defined as much by her vocation of teaching as it is by her role as mother and wife. She can no more neglect her household chores at the end of the school day than she can leave behind the themes, reports, and test papers that she lugs home each afternoon.

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The children in Mrs. Zajac's class are the dramatis personae in this performance, and like the characters in the old World War II movies, they assume the expected stereotypes - Judith, the bright student Mrs. Zajac cannot help but favor; Clarence, the sometimes lovable troublemaker; Robert, the emotionally disturbed child whose eyes are wild with fiendishness; and Claude, the lonely misfit, unable to gain social acceptance from his peers.

Kidder devotes considerable space to the social history of Holyoke, a working-class town in the western part of the state, where in only 30 years a sizable number of impoverished Puerto Ricans replaced Irish-American families of the sort in which Mrs. Zajac (nee Christine Padden) was raised.

Focusing on a classroom in Holyoke, as Kidder has done, is not like looking at a classroom in affluent Pacific Palisades, Calif., or in the heart of Brooklyn's Bedford-Stuyvesant ghetto. But then no two public-school classrooms - even on opposite sides of a wall - are the same. The author's choice of locale is as good as any if the goal is to help the reader understand the frustrations and joys of teaching in an elementary school and the extent to which home, family, and neighborhood influence the behavior and achievement of students.

One must wonder, though, whether readers will slog through 250 pages to gain a better appreciation of the educational obstacles in the paths of a classroom of students and their teacher. To be sure, Kidder brings alive and personalizes what otherwise are the dreary statistics of social scientists. Yet, how many really want to spend page after page, for instance, watching Mrs. Zajac try to cope with Clarence and agonize about whether she should let him be transferred to a school for troubled children?

While this is a difficulty, ``Among Schoolchildren'' is an accurate reflection of life in an elementary school, where events tend toward the routine. By the end, which happens to be the conclusion of the school year, the teacher is ready for a break and so is the reader.

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