WHEN YOU SPEND NINE MONTHS pursuing a subject for treatment in a journalistic study, you’re pretty much stuck with what that subject does. In Samuel Freedman’s case, he spent the academic year 1987-88 observing a teacher in the New York City public school system – specifically, in Manhattan’s Seward Park High School, a crumbling, crowded building that nevertheless boasts an astonishingly high percentage of subsequent college attendance.
Jessica Siegel, the subject of the study, emerges as a remarkable teacher who really is only doing the job to the best of her ability. What makes her so remarkable is her full use of an ability other teachers have abandoned.
Plagued by the unavoidable emotional involvement with students fighting the inner-city monsters of crime and poverty, Siegel serves as surrogate family as well as instructor to many of her students, whom she then loses to graduation year after year. That high proportion of college admissions is a gratifying statistic: the actuality we learn is that her greatest success is an even more basic attempt to satisfy the responsibilities of friend and role model to the kids – often the first of each.
Freedman’s view takes us beyond the classroom into the neighborhoods themselves to look in on the living conditions of the students and the family situations that often serve as obstacles to any scholastic ambition.
Two central characters are New York’s Board of Education and the United Federation of Teachers, groups that seem dedicated solely to the maintenance of their own bureaucracies:
“When the UFT in September, 1987, signed its new contract with the Board of Education, which featured a top salary of $50,000, a social studies teacher from Seward Park went to union headquarters to request a copy of the document. He recounted what happened next: ‘First they tell me, “We don’t have a copy.” Then it’s, “No, we couldn’t give you one if we had it.” It was like, “Get out of here, man!” I went home and told my wife, “This is like dealing with Board of Ed.” And she said, “I think they send them to the same school for bureaucrats.”’”
A seemingly necessary task like the purchase of a copying machine becomes a nightmare of red tape in a too-familiar process described with a detachment that gives it an even more horrible cast, and Freedman’s insistence upon pursuing such subjects got him barred, throughout the year, from more and more of the administrative proceedings.
Something Freedman was not expecting was Siegel’s resignation, an action threatened throughout the narrative that still serves as an unexpected conclusion. It doesn’t dim the power of the story at all, serving in fact to underscore the grimness of her profession.
A fiction-like patness of plot sets in from time to time, really just an accident of the elements Freedman combines to give life to his story. There are recognizable “types” among students and administrators, and situations we recognize from their emotional appeal when used in quick-fix settings like television shows.
But this book gives a more compelling context to tale of a Chinese-American student writing the story of his street gang for the school paper, or the search for a truant honors student whose family lives in the shambles of welfare housing. It’s not there for cheap emotional appeal. It’s the real thing, shown in its rawest state.
In the end, the story is an uplifting one because it focuses on one woman and her accomplishments. Were it an examination of the educational system or an indictment of a lazy Board of Ed, it would simply have deteriorated into gloomy rantings. With its point of view so ordered, Small Victories offers hope as well as a stirring testimony to the power of an individual to effect social change.
Freedman is a former New York Times reporter whose investigative writing has won him numerous awards; a National Book Award may be in the offing for this volume. It would be well deserved.
Small Victories by Samuel G. Freedman. Harper & Row, 431 pp., $22.95.
– Schenectady Daily Gazette, 20 November 1990