A recounting of a teacher’s globe-trotting life written by a grateful student.
In 1966, debut author Simmonds was in the 10th grade in St. Kitts and eager to begin the study of the French language. He was immediately taken with his teacher, Zenaida “Zina” Katzen, who impressed him with her self-assured poise and bold teaching strategies. The author was so profoundly influenced by her example that he continued to study French and became a teacher as well, his professional emulation a kind of loving homage to her. Simmonds enjoyed a reunion with her in 1998 but resolved to learn more about her. He returned to St. Kitts in 2010, eight years after her death, to begin researching her life. The author unearthed a remarkably eventful soul—Katzen (originally Katzenellenbogen) was born in Siberia in 1911, the daughter of a respected medical doctor and virtuosic musician. The Russian Revolution forced her family to relocate in 1919, first to Japan and then to China. She spent six years (1926-32) as a student in Paris and graduated from the Sorbonne. After teaching in Shanghai, she moved to Chile—she may have worked for the Allies during World War II—and started her own school. Katzen moved to St. Kitts in 1961, shortly before she turned 50, and spent her last 42 years there. Katzen’s trajectory is cinematically adventurous, and the twine that holds together its diverse parts—tenderly captured by Simmonds—is her calling to be a teacher. The author is infectiously enthusiastic about the subject, and his research is meticulous. Also, he waxes philosophic about the consequences of laying bare the story of his “pedagogic idol,” a moving reflection on the advantage distance from our heroes provides. His methods can be idiosyncratic: He announces in a prefatory comment that he feels free to imaginatively fill in the lacunae of her life, without giving the reader any sense of when that occurs. Also, he allows Katzen’s correspondence to tell the tale of the last 40 years of her life, which can be meanderingly unfocused. Includes photos.
An unconventional but affecting biography.