Picks and Pans Review: Small Victories

updated 07/02/1990 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 07/02/1990 AT 01:00 AM EDT

by Samuel G. Freedman

In the fall of 1986 Samuel Freedman, a New York Times reporter, went to speak at Seward Park High School on Manhattan's Lower East Side. He was amazed to learn that more than 90 percent of Seward's graduates go on for further schooling or into the military, despite the fact that two-thirds of its students come from families eligible for welfare and that it ranks among the state's worst schools on standardized tests.

Intrigued, Freedman left his job and spent the 1987—88 school year at Seward Park to write this often heartrending book. Going beyond Tracy Kidder's Among Schoolchildren, which examined one Massachusetts teacher and her class, Freedman examines the lives of Seward's entire faculty and student body, going as far as China to research students' backgrounds. He also examines the historical forces behind New York City's educational system—one so widely regarded as substandard that not one Board of Education member or elected city official sent his or her children to a public school in the 1987-88 year.

Freedman focuses on Jessica Siegel, a popular 38-year-old English teacher who has been at Seward for seven years and is collapsing under the bureaucratic hassle and work load. Seward operates at 150 percent of capacity, and Siegel teaches five classes a day, a total of 140 students. She has no desk, so she carries her supplies in a tote bag from class to class.

As the school year advances, Siegel's battles are never ending. She cajoles some publishers into contributing books that are not in the school's budget. She spends $79.67 of her own money to photocopy August Wilson's play Fences for class use. She even rents a car to drive three of her students 100 miles for a college interview.

At one point, Siegel grades student autobiographies: "She reads accounts of near-starvation in China and rat infestation on Delancey Street. She reads two separate contemplations of suicide. She reads one girl's adoring analysis of her father's physique, naked from the waist up, and wonders about incest. Divorces, beatings, adultery, fatherless children—these appear as commonly as sports exploits and prattle about boyfriends.... Sometimes the sheer weight of sadness overwhelms her."

Interwoven with Siegel's story are the lives of similarly devoted professionals at Seward, such as history teacher John McNamara, married, with a 17-month-old son, who has to work as a maître d' at weddings on weekends to make ends meet.

It's the dedication of these teachers, Freedman implies, that is responsible for the high number of Seward students who continue their education after they graduate. But Freedman effectively details how these teachers are being worn down by an often chaotic, irrational system. Equally affecting is his look at the students: their humor, quests for a sense of self, struggles to stay away from drugs, and resiliency.

It makes for an absorbing book, by turns depressing and inspiring. "In a school built for failure," Freedman says, "anything short of failure qualifies as a kind of success." (Harper & Row, $22.95)

From Our Partners