Since I had mixed emotions on September by Tracy Kidder (Literary Nonfiction, 131-148), I decided to dig deeper into it and attempt to figure out why. As I stated in my previous response, there were things I hated about it and other things I downright loved.
I immediately hated the way Mrs. Zajac refers to herself, especially early in the piece and in the classroom, in third person. That struck me as weird, set a sort of poor first impression and it also made me feel distanced from her. I wondered how I would feel sitting before her in that classroom while she did that. Would I recognize it as strange or, worse, at such a young impressionable age would I start referring to myself in third person, too? Maybe, like Clarence, I would shout my frustrations out in the hall (notice he also used third person when it would have made more sense to shout “I hate you!” Was he mocking her, too, in addition to his anger?).
In addition to the way Mrs. Zajac specifically refers to herself, the author, Tracy Kidder, also uses third person to tell the story. While that should work fine since he’s telling the story of another person, for me, there was something that just didn’t work about it. It felt overly disconnected and, at times, even cold. The story seemed to be told with a spirit of unreasonable detachment and I wondered if maybe this was due to the fact that Kidder was not a teacher himself. While I liked the way Kidder presented Mrs. Zajac’s point of view, I think, maybe, the story would have benefited from a bit more personal insight on Kidder’s part. After all, even if he wasn’t actually a teacher himself, he had to at one time have at least been a student.
Similarly, the back and forth between referring to her as Mrs. Zajac and Chris felt odd to me, too. While I get that Kidder used Mrs. Zajac’s first name to show a more human and personal side of her outside of the classroom and at home, it always seemed to come across as a bit weird. Maybe since I’m not actually a teacher myself, and therefore I possibly related more to the role of student, but I just couldn’t escape the feeling of wanting her to be “Mrs. Zajac.” Even as an adult who has reconnected and even became friends with a few of my childhood favorites, I still struggle to refer to my own high school and elementary school teachers by their first names.
I liked the way Kidder described Mrs. Zajac and the other characters in the story physically so we could easily picture them. These stand out as gems: “Their faces ranged from dark brown to gold, to pink, to pasty white, the color Chris associated with sunless tenements and too much TV.” Also: “Taking her stand in front of the green chalkboard, discussing the rules with her new class, she repeated sentences, and her lips held the shapes of certain words, such as homework… Her hands kept very busy. They sliced the air and made karate chops to mark off boundaries. They extended straight out like a traffic cop’s, halting illegal maneuvers yet to be perpetrated.” I also loved this insight here: “She never cried in front of her students.”
The more I read about Mrs. Zajac and her story, the more I felt like I could understand her, sympathize and empathize with her. Being a teacher has to be one of the hardest and most self-sacrificing jobs around. Her career choice alone made me feel inclined to like her and root for her as the protagonist of the story. It became clear rather quickly through her interaction with Clarence and by the way she took her work and her worries home with her each night and on the weekends, too, that she really cares deeply about her students and truly wants the best for them. The characterization of Mrs. Zajac was done well. Through Kidder’s careful descriptions, we can see Mrs. Zajac and through her words, thoughts and actions we are able to really get to know her.
I found Clarence easy to picture, too, and I found myself worrying about him and specifically his home situation. But, like Mrs. Zajac, I had no idea really what his home life was or wasn’t like and how he was treated or possibly mistreated there. I had to rely on these “cumes” just like Mrs. Zajac. Mrs. Zajac’s interactions and conflict with Clarence is what drives the story forward and makes us, or at least made me, feel invested in these people and made me care about what was going to happen to them. Still, the ending left me feeling a bit “meh” about the piece. I wanted closure but didn’t get any, and because I didn’t get it I felt disappointed.
Although I was disappointed with the ending because it left me without closure, I also in a way liked it to a degree because I found myself imagining Mrs. Zajac’s arc in the story continuing beyond these pages. I found myself guessing what might’ve happened next to her and to her students, both immediately and in the next few weeks, throughout the school year and beyond. I could imagine anything I wanted to imagine and because of that I didn’t have to succumb to an unhappy ending that might have happened here. I would like to read the rest of Kidder’s book to see what really happened (and to see if the rest of the school year was in fact in line with how I’d imagined it). I’ve always been a bit of a happy ending girl myself so while I guess it would have been easy enough to imagine Clarence dropping out of school or simply continuing his antics, personally I pictured him eventually seeing the light, overcoming the odds, going on to college and someday taking over the world. I wonder if all that’s in the book.
That said; something about the overall tone of the piece, and how that tone shifted along the way, makes me wonder if Kidder intended to instill those initial feelings of disappointment so that he could counter with those teasing feelings of longing, wonder and hope at the end. As I read the piece again, I caught more serious laden tones throughout. Kidder captured the feelings of wonder and unknowing and trepidation and even despair, as well as anxiety and excitement, of that first week back to school for both students and teachers, too. In a way, the story felt like advice or words of wisdom from one teacher to future teachers—much like the “cume” folders discussed and how they’re meant to help the next teacher learn about students’ cumulative pasts.
I felt Mrs. Zajac’s pain and frustration and how tired she already was by the Friday of the first week of school. It’s a long school year and she was already exhausted emotionally and physically. As the saying goes, this wasn’t her first rodeo, and as such she already knew what to expect. But the tone changed somewhere in the middle as a feeling of hope set in. I could feel Mrs. Zajac’s sense of hope that these kids would overcome adversity, have bright futures and that they wouldn’t somehow fall to the waste side of a hard knock life. Toward the end of the piece, the tone shifted a third time, this time more optimistically—but still conservatively optimistic, as Clarence arrived back at school that next day with a seemingly apparent change of attitude and possibly of heart, though no one including Mrs. Zajac could be certain of either.
Throughout the piece, Kidder instilled and then continued to build on that sense of hope. That hope contrasted nicely with the other more serious and somewhat sad elements in the story and it grew stronger and stronger in between the lines. Mrs. Zajac’s hope gave me hope for her, too, that she would find her drive again and rediscover her passion during this new school year. It also gave me hope for Clarence and other kids like him who need that extra push, guidance, inspiration and support—that they would get the things they needed to thrive and excel. I felt Mrs. Zajac had a lot to offer these kids and I would have loved to see how it all panned out at the end of the year but the fact that I didn’t get that sense of closure left me feeling dissatisfied. Of course, this essay, while able to stand alone, was also an excerpt from a larger work by Kidder so structurally speaking leaving us with this teasing cliffhanger ending was highly successful, too.
All in all, I think Kidder accomplished what I think he set out to accomplish here. He made me think about the status of schools today and he got me to care about this specific teacher and her class. The tone of the piece and all those feelings I felt along the way reflected the way I imagine many teachers, like Mrs. Zajac, must feel at the start of each new year and then again at the end of each school year as they say goodbye to their students knowing they may never know what will eventually become of them. A job like that requires a great deal of hope.
As I read this story, that feeling of hope was there to carry me through.
Sims, Patsy. Literary Nonfiction. New York: Oxford, 2002.