Commercially successful treatments of teachers and teaching the movie Stand and Deliver, for example, or Tracy Kidder's recent best-seller, Among Schoolchildren tend to personalize educational problems. The hero/heroine at center stage challenges illiteracy or innumeracy and licks the sucker outright. We discover the vast difference that one plucky soul at the front of the room can make. We see that when talent, heart, and pedagogical energy bend to the task, whole classes of underprivileged kids can master calculus, and a failing school system will begin to smarten up. The few children who still contrive to fail turn out to be suffering, sadly, from mysterious moral maladies.
There's an edge of truth in these fables; good teachers can exert huge influence. But there's a lot of fantasy as well, and the distinction of Small Victories lies in its unblinking alertness to fantasy. The author, Samuel G. Freedman, a former New York Times reporter, studies the life of Jessica Siegel, a teacher who exhausts herself trying to help immigrant kids in a New York City school. For a time the book's news quotient is low. Siegel's school, Seward Park High on Manhattan's Lower East Side, is predictably a shambles. The approach to the building lies predictably through misery and mayhem (bodies supine on the sidewalk, broken glass from burglarized cars), and there's a huge hole in the roof and 200 missing windowpanes. The classrooms are at close to 150 percent of capacity, gang wars erupt in the corridors, and rough talk is the norm for kids and grown-ups alike. (Popular male teacher to returning male students on opening day: ''Get laid much this summer?'')
Siegel's devotion itself is also familiar. Single, 38, well educated, politically sophisticated, she teaches five English classes a day (140 students, nearly twice the load of a teacher in a suburban high school). She grades hundreds of papers each week and discharges a variety of administrative duties (she's assistant chair of her department). The school's equipment is lousy; begging for supplies is part of every teacher's routine.
This dedicated woman endlessly practices her version of battlefield triage, deciding which casualties she can help and which she must discipline herself to shrug off. For a whole army of immigrant children struggling with part-time jobs, self-doubt, anxiety about inadequate skills (only 13.8 percent of the seniors were reading at grade level when they arrived at Seward Park), she functions as friend, exhorter, no-bull cheerleader. In constant touch with a network of guidance counselors, college admissions and financial-aid officers, and former students, she writes reference letters by the hundred and goes far beyond this in supporting intelligent ambition (and restraining naive expectations).
The performance is consistently admirable, even moving but, to repeat, it's essentially unastonishing. What matters about Small Victories isn't one young professional's commitment but Freedman's guts in forcing himself and his reader to see the professional not as Wonderwoman but as a worker embedded in and overmastered by a social system.
And it takes guts. Freedman has to look beyond Jessica Siegel's frustrations and successes to the social chaos that envelops them. The heroine disappears while we sit with a truant officer hunting a kid in the South Bronx, or while we wait tables with teachers working two jobs to pay family bills. The reporter himself tracks immigrant kids back to their origins. (Freedman goes all the way to China in an effort to understand a student Siegel is struggling to save.) At a faculty meeting we begin to see that neither Jessica Siegel (who is present) nor Mother Theresa (who isn't) could defeat the subtly, slyly interdependent bureaucracies of the board of education and the teachers' union.
Most important, we travel with Seward Park students to a posh Long Island prep school a field trip organized by a lefty colleague and friend of Siegel's for the purpose of bringing to life what's meant by the concept of privilege. Afterward, listening to the Seward kids discuss what they saw, we face the harshest truth: At the core of the Education Problem lies a society's shrewd concealment of the unequal distribution of opportunity on every front, a phenomenon well beyond any teacher's remedy.
As a writer, Samuel Freedman is addicted to hyped journalese (New York commuters ''clamor'' from their trains to their jobs). And while he refuses, commendably, to capitulate to the Great Teacher theory of school reform, he's never explicit enough about the workings of the power structures that his book confronts. But, even so, Small Victories remains a big win. It comes as close as a writer can come, I believe, to evoking, simultaneously, passionate devotion and the brutal social and political realities that nowadays threaten to strip all devotion of meaning.