“I’m really tired. I work all the time. I have no life. And I just can’t take it any more. . . I have to do this. To survive.” These are the words Jessica Siegel uses to explain to her friends why she cannot continue teaching English and journalism at Seward Park High School on the Lower East Side of New York City.
In Small Victories: The Real World of a Teacher Her Students, and Their High School, Samuel G. Freedman follows Siegel through her last year at Seward. He conveys the texture of her life and work with portraits and histories of some of her students and colleagues and with narratives of typical incidents in the routine of the school year. Siegel emerges from his portrayal as a true American heroine who performs secular miracles of education. Her success seems miraculous, because it occurs despite tremendous odds against her. This book approaches the form of classical tragedy, as it shows a great teacher forced out of teaching by the overwhelming dissonance between the system within which she must work and her own idealism. Seward Park High School is shown strangling in overcrowding, bureaucratic indifference, and underfunding in the chaos of a virtually abandoned inner-city community. Siegel’s almost tragic flaw is her drive to serve and to do what is right and good no matter what the cost to her personal life and health.
Born in 1949 and educated at the University of Chicago, Siegel began a career in journalism, working for a left-wing collective news agency. She learned the skills that led her to advise tlie Seward World, where a number of her students won city and national awards for their pieces. After working for several years at Covenant House, a residence for troubled teenagers, Siegel became a paraprofessional at Seward in 1976, partly to gain a $650 raise in salary. While working at Seward, Siegel completed her master’s degree at Teachers College and eventually became a licensed full-time teacher.
Though talented, she was not a natural teacher, and therefore had to learn the art from her own best teachers, from the best at Seward, and by dedicated practice. Freedman’s accounts of her teaching in advanced English and in journalism show her nurturing her students’ intelligence, challenging them to read closely, to think carefully, and to strive to connect what they read to their own experience of the world. He shows her giving away her home hours reading the piles of essays she assigns to her 140 students. These essays tell her who her students are, so that her teaching becomes increasingly individualized during the term, while simultaneously teaching the students to write in English, which for many of them is a second language.
Though she has weaknesses and failures, Siegel is a master teacher, and she is not the only master educator at Seward. Freedman fills out the portrait of the school and of teaching there with sketches of other dedicated people. John McNamara is a highly educated and gifted history teacher who cannot support his family on his $25,000 salary and who, therefore, moonlights at a “wedding palace,” hosting receptions most weekends and holidays. Bruce Baskind is another fine history teacher who concentrates his efforts on helping ghetto children build their identity and spirit of pride. There are portraits of the principal, a truant officer, and other officials who care about the school and the children it serves. All of these people fight for small victories against immense odds.
The problems facing these dedicated people are unimaginable to outsiders. They range from the individual needs and problems of the students themselves through almost every aspect of the school, the community, the city system, the teachers union, the state and federal bureaucracies, and finally to America’s sense of itself as a nation. In his treatise, “The Subjection of Women” (1869), John Stuart Mill defines the character of a modern democratic society and aptly expresses the ideal that motivates Siegel: “Human beings are no longer born to their place in life, and chained down by an inexorable bond to the place they are born to, but are free to employ their faculties, and such favorable chances as offer, to achieve the lot which may appear to them most desirable.” Siegel and the other heroes that Freedman describes want their students to participate in this liberty. At every level, the central message from system and society is the same: The will to give these children a chance at liberty is lacking; for a variety of reasons, America as a whole does not care about these children.
When students walk into her classroom, Siegel can see the results of this indifference. Her students know that they are insignificant and are expected to fail. Freedman explains in detail how most students arrive at Seward Park. New York City’s system is designed to draw into special schools all the clearly talented children in the city who manage to find the will to complete secondary school. Those students remaining go to neighborhood schools such as Seward Park, which carry out the obligation of offering free public education to all who want it. A student at Seward Park, then, is almost by definition lacking any special worth in the school system. The first barrier...
(The entire section is 2154 words.)