Famed for his compelling accounts of the work life of computer engineers in The Soul of a New Machine and builders and architects in House, Kidder now applies his considerable gifts for vivifying the commonplace to that most commonplace of professionals, the classroom teacher--seen here through a year in the life of Mrs. Chris Zajac's fifth-grade class in the run-down ""Flats"" section of Holyoke, Mass. A self-described ""old lady"" in her 30s, Mrs. Zajac (nâ€še Padden and born and raised in Holyoke) plays tough in the classroom but has dreams about her pupils--on nights when their problems aren't keeping her awake. She teaches on her feet with pragmatic flexibility and determined energy; she is ever alert to incipient disturbance and sensitive to bruised feelings; and she knows when to summon up the strategies, tricks, dramatics, and poses that seem to make for an effective teacher. Most of all, she cares deeply about each of her charges--half of them Puerto Rican, more than half on welfare, a few deeply troubled and persistently unreachable, one very bright and well liked and a perpetual comfort to the teacher--and such is Kidder's unobtrusive skill that before the year and the book are up readers too have come to know and feel for these individual children. Kidder succeeds impressively in projecting Mrs. Zajac as an everyday hero without giving her super powers. And unlike in the flood of teachers' books of about 20 years ago that bemoaned a grim and joyless system's psychological murder of disadvantaged children (a genre Kidder calls ""the literature of rage""), Zajac and Kidder take the children's disadvantages in a ""rigged world"" as a given, a context in which a dedicated teacher struggles to make what difference she can by exhorting and expecting her pupils to do their best.