Best-Selling Writer as Back-of-the-Class Scribbler

IT didn't take an entire school year for Tracy Kidder to realize that the great American education epic was one teacher in one classroom. In fact, it took less than two weeks for grandiose plans to embrace modest realities. ``The search for a grand solution to education is part of the problem,'' he says. In a telephone interview, Mr. Kidder emphasized that when discussing education, Americans fail to ``deal with the particular.'' His book does.

He made an effort never to get up on a soapbox. ``I wanted the story to stand on its own,'' he says. ``And that's why I spent so much time sitting in a classroom.''

How did the students react to the presence of this non-teacher adult, scribbling furiously in the back of the room for a year? ``I became a real piece of furniture,'' he says. The children ``were told what I was doing and realized I would not exert any control over them.''

Were there any surprises over the course of a school year sitting in a fifth-grade class in an urban school district? ``I didn't use as much of what I call the `exterior stuff,''' says Kidder, though he researched the subject thoroughly. Also, as a nation, ``we still go on imagining the schools will transform society,'' he says. This may be a quaint idea learned in history books, but it still has a very strong pull on the nation's psyche. It comes home when you see a roomful of fifth graders realize what this no-nonsense teacher is all about, that she means it when she says to them, ```I'm going to do something for you,''' he says. ``There has to be hope when you talk about the education of children,and I found this in Mrs. Zajac and in knowing that there are thousands like her.''

It is his third book about a not-famous person at work. ``There is something biological about education,'' says Kidder. In any given generation we may not have many great poets or physicists, but we can have many great teachers, certainly good ones, he says. There is a ``web of influences that a teacher can have, and I wanted to show how enormous it can be.'' He makes a point of relating Mrs. Zajac's thoughts about her favorite teacher, to those of some of Mrs. Zajac's earlier students (now college graduates) for whom she was their favorite teacher.

Decades of research and reform have not altered the fundamental facts of teaching. The task of universal, public, elementary education is still usually being conducted by a woman alone in a little room, presiding over a youthful distillate of a town or city. If she is willing, she tries to cultivate the minds of children both in good and desperate shape. Some of them have problems that she hasn't been trained even to identify. She feels her way. She has no choice.

From `Among Schoolchildren'

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