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The Veteran and The Beginner

It was her first year of teaching, and a desperate Harriet Stein turned to Jessica Siegel for advice

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In 1986, Samuel G. Freedman, then a reporter for The New York Times, wrote an article about a Bronx girl who had fallen to her death because a landlord had failed to install a required safety barrier in her apartment window. The article caught the attention of Jessica Siegel, an English and journalism teacher at Seward Park High School on Manhattan's Lower East Side. She wrote a congratulatory letter to Freedman, who in turn offered to speak before her journalism class. "She invited me the following fall," Freedman writes in the introduction to his new book, Small Victories, "and when I rode the subway down to Delancey Street that October for the first time, I expected to encounter a dangerous school filled with disaffected students. Without revealing too much about Seward Park, let me say that I was proven wrong, which intrigued me. It intrigued me, too, that when I chatted with Jessica Siegel after class it became apparent that she knew a great deal about her students' lives beyond the classroom, and that those lives were filled with drama and tragedy. The overwhelming majority of her students, and Seward Park's, were immigrants or the children of immigrants, and so both she and the school were engaged in the most fundamental act of American education: creating intelligent citizens."

Freedman decided to quit his job at the Times and spend an entire year at Seward Park, "not masquerading as a student, not attempting to teach, but taking notes and conducting interviews as a sort of reporter-in-residence. I would follow Jessica Siegel, but with the intention of widening my aperture to include many teachers and students and administrators, for I wanted to explore a community, not create a personality cult." The result: Small Victories: The Real World of a Teacher, Her Students, and Their High School. In the following excerpt, Harriet Stein--a young, overwhelmed first-year teacher--turns to Jessica for advice. After 10 years of teaching, Jessica Siegel left the profession two years ago (see page 66), but Harriet Stein is still at it, attempting--against the odds--to create intelligent citizens.

When Jessica Siegel writes the word "Aim" on the blackboard of Room 336, the woman in the far left corner shudders. The woman is Harriet Stein, an English teacher now nearing the end of her first term, and she shudders because "Aim" is the word she saw in her nightmare. The word was floating in the air, daring her, mocking her, challenging her, for it is the word that by Board of Education edict must begin every single lesson in every single school in New York City. No matter how long Harriet works, no matter how hard, she feels herself slipping off the pace, scrambling with an overloaded backpack toward another classroom and another 34 students and another "Aim," the tyrant of her days.

Harriet has not slept well all semester. She pushes herself to bed at midnight and wakes at 5:30, electrified by worry. She has not seen some friends in months, and when she does she asks them to massage her sore neck and tells them only partly in jest, "I want to be a secretary." For the first time in eight years she has no relationship, and little time and energy for one if she did. On Friday nights, when she would normally enjoy dancing or a dinner party, she deposits herself at a classical music concert to be solitarily soothed. The next morning brings the emotional hangover Harriet remembers her mother calling "The Saturday Awfuls." Sunday she starts dreading Monday, when she steps on the treadmill again.

The problem is not the job. Harriet turned down offers from high schools in two suburbs on the mere chance of working at Seward Park. Her parents thought she was crazy to forsake a certain paycheck for a chancy one, and her professors at Columbia University's Teachers College thought she was crazy for favoring the city system. All of them had ignored the clues. Prior to entering graduate school, Harriet had counseled patients in a women's health center and done casework with victims of marital rape. Her moral compass could point her in no direction other than toward teaching the children of poverty. She understood affluent kids had problems; she just felt they needed her less desperately to solve them. And her months at Seward Park, however arduous, have only confirmed her thinking.

No, the problem is not the job itself. The problem is the conditions of the job. Harriet teaches five classes a day, three sections of a required course in British literature and two of an elective in mystery and adventure, burdening her with 170 students. She oversees a homeroom of an additional 34 youngsters, and she assists Helen Cohen in the guidance office during one of her nominally free periods. One of Harriet's friends from graduate school teaches in Scarsdale, one of the wealthiest communities in the state, where she has four classes of 20 pupils each. Another teaches in New Rochelle, Harriet's hometown, and has his own classroom with a little library and a closet for his running shoes and shaving kit. These friends are in more of a dancing mood on Friday nights.

Harriet did not receive her schedule until the first day of school, and she had to slap together her courses on the basis of whatever books the English department happened to stock. She is still learning how to write lesson plans, and she is still learning how to modulate her manner between too strict and too soft. When she failed a boy in one of her British literature classes, he calmly informed her, "You're Number One on my hit list." Harriet did not take seriously the physical threat, but she suffered to realize that a student saw her as the enemy. How many others agreed?

So badly had Harriet wanted to become a superior teacher that she had paid $300 a credit to attend the renowned Teachers College, more than thrice the rate at the City University. Far from feeling superior, however, she has been discovering all term how many of her professors' pronouncements are useless in a real classroom, at least a real classroom on the Lower East Side. Why didn't somebody, for instance, tell her about beginning lessons with an aim? Didn't Teachers College expect that a few of its students would work in New York? Harriet considered transferring to City University until she found she would forfeit most of her Columbia credits. Life can wield few tortures worse than Educational Methods courses the second time around.

The frustration reminds Harriet of studying cello as a teenager. She spent her first three years under one teacher, then switched to an instructor who required that she position her hands in a different way. Suddenly she didn't know what to do with her hands, hands she had trusted, and the more she practiced the new method, the worse she sounded.

One day after school, she sent a letter confessing her depression to a favorite undergraduate professor, attaching to it a paper she had written for Teachers College about his influence upon her. The professor's response arrived a few weeks later. He recalled his own early years of teaching, when he made so many mistakes he feared he had caused "permanent brain damage" to his pupils, and he advised her not to be so hard on herself. She had done the right thing with her life, he wanted her to know. "The profession needs bright, concerned people, and we're lucky to have you," he wrote. "There are very few things that are exciting to do, that contribute to society, that exercise the heart and refurbish the soul, and that bring home the bacon. We're very, very lucky people." Harriet laid down the letter and cried for two hours.

She does not lack for advice at Seward Park. The question is what to save and what to discard; the question is what combination of tiles comprises the mosaic of classroom persona. Emma Jon, the chairwoman of the English department, told Harriet not to worry about assigning students seats, because they would bridle at the imposition. Rick Rowley explained his system of giving a numerical grade to each pupil in each class on each day. Steve Anderson suggested Harriet seek out Jessica, who had been his "buddy teacher" last year, and Jessica herself extended an open invitation. Harriet admired how students flocked to Jessica during free periods and after school, and she telephoned Jessica at home a few times. Still, she demurred at approaching her in school. Jessica always looked so busy, so immersed, so, so--what was the word Harriet invented?-- scurried. Did this dervish ever relax over a cup of coffee? But, really, the fault was shared. Harriet's own schedule afforded little freedom for observing other teachers. It was a bit late to register for swimming lessons when you were already in the pool drowning.

Yesterday afternoon, though, Harriet collected herself enough to ask Jessica if she could watch this morning's lesson. Jessica said fine, and with good reason. Harriet would be attending the second period section of English 7, Jessica's best class, and the lesson would cover "Passage From Africa," an excerpt from a slave narrative entitled The Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavas Vass, the African. Jessica could not say the Equiano lesson was one of her favorites, because her favorites in hindsight were whatever worked with a given class, but it was doubtlessly one of her most striking. Equiano was carried off from his Ibo tribe in 1756, at the age of 11. He survived the Middle Passage and toiled for 10 years in Barbados, Virginia, and Pennsylvania before buying his freedom and moving to England, where he devoted himself to antislavery agitation and writing his autobiography. Jessica first read a portion of his account in a social studies anthology, and only later learned that Equiano's story was one of the most famous in slave literature.

Jessica hardly suffered from hubris, but she liked to think that "Passage From Africa" was one piece of literature she taught at a collegiate level of complexity. Her lesson united history and literature, and it forced students to penetrate past text to subtext. Most importantly, her lesson celebrated the power of language and ideas, the power of prose crafted in 1789 to stun children nearly two centuries later.

As Jessica finishes jotting the aim on the blackboard--"How Does 'Passage From Africa' Reveal How Racial Attitudes Are Established?"--Harriet reaches into her backpack for a blue ballpoint and a pad of binder paper. She wears a navy skirt hemmed at midcalf and a black and blue flowered wool sweater. The attire is typical of her subdued style, as typical as her small voice and her doe eyes. Uncertain of her footing in Seward Park, she treads lightly. Jessica, in contrast, appears to have been assembled in a Third World bazaar.

"Yesterday," she says to the class, "I had you write about your pets. How many of you have pets?"

A few hands rise.

"Lun, what do you have?"

"Two cats and a dog."

"Wilfredo?"

"A parakeet."

"My little brother," someone shouts.

Harriet writes a note about the atmosphere. Kids talk without raising their hands, yet classmates respect whomever has the floor.

"For anyone who ever had a pet or has one now," Jessica continues, "what do you have to do?" She tosses her curls, rolls her eyes. "Oy vey. Feed it. Wash it. Clean up." She unscrews her face. "But how would you feel if it died?"

"Sad," Jose Santiago says.

"Upset."

"I'd kill myself."

"You're laughing about it," Jessica says, planting her palms on her hips. "But think about the love and affection you have for your pets. And now think about how the slaves were treated." She frees her hands to hang at her side and walks to the front of the desk. "What I want to get at is how it's possible for a group of human beings to treat another group of human beings worse than we treat our pets."

Harriet writes another note. Jessica was pretty forceful, pretty direct, while she is generally reluctant to state her opinions. Maybe she edits herself too harshly, and cheats the classes out of important context. She scribbles a small question mark in the margin.

"Equiano was in Africa," Jessica continues. "He was 11 years old. Ran around. Played. Just like a regular kid. Then he got caught. And on this ship to America a process took place. A re-education process. And when he got off, he was a slave."

Jessica turns to the board. She draws a trapezoid to represent the United States, then sketches a vague shape several feet to the right.

"What's that, a pork chop?" someone calls.

"Africa," Jessica answers. "Now you know why I'm not an art teacher."

She charts a line connecting pork chop to trapezoid, approximating the route of the Middle Passage.

"Anyone got an idea how many Africans were brought here as slaves?"

"Two million," Jose says.

"Raquel, what do you think?"

"Two million."

"Joanna?"

"A lot."

Harriet notes that Jessica will call on a student who has not raised a hand, while she herself usually sticks with volunteers. She worries about intimidating a student by forcing him to speak. But it seems to work for Jessica. Harriet places a second question mark in the margin.

As Harriet writes, Jessica scowls. Nobody wants to take a risk. Nobody except Ottavio Johnson, who got to school late and is cutting his second period class to catch up on what he missed in first period English 7. Ottavio waves his hand wildly, like a hitchhiker who has just caught sight of the first car in an hour.

"Twenty million," he calls.

Jessica nods. That Ottavio knew surprises her not at all.

"Historians differ on this," she tells the class, "but the estimates are 10 million to 20 million." A hush settles over the room. "And how many survived?"

"Half," Ottavio shouts.

"Half," Jessica confirms. "And I think Equiano gives us clues why."

She retrieves from the desktop a copy of Living World History, a social studies textbook, and finds page 547, marked by a torn strip of paper. Then she passes the open book to Lisa Carrera, the first girl in the left row, as it begins its voyage through 34 pairs of hands. Page 547 contains a diagram of a slave ship, showing oval shapes arrayed for maximal volume on a single deck. In the dispassionate blueprint the shapes could represent logs or cigars. Only the small lines, indicating the shackles at neck, wrist, and ankle, suggest that the cargo is human. The book moves slowly up and down the aisles. As it does, Jessica asks a girl named Cindy James to read aloud one paragraph from a mimeograph:

At last, when the ship we were in had got all her cargo, they made ready with fearful noises, and we were all put under the deck, so that we could not see how they managed the vessel. The stench of the hold while we were on the coast was so intolerably loathsome that it was dangerous to remain there for any time, and some of us were permitted to stay on the deck for fresh air. Now that the whole ship's cargo was confined together, it became absolutely pestilential. The closeness of the place, and the heat of the climate, added to the number in the ship, which was so crowded that each had scarcely room to turn himself, almost suffocated us. This produced copious perspirations, so that the air soon became unfit for respiration from a variety of loathsome smells, and brought on a sickness among the slaves of which many died, thus falling victim to the improvident avarice, as I may call it, of their purchasers. This wretched situation was again aggravated by the galling of the chains, now become insupportable, and the filth of the necessary tubs, in which the children often fell, and were almost suffocated. The shrieks of the women and the groans of the dying rendered the whole a scene of horror almost inconceivable.

There is a long silence, a silence Jessica has learned to expect.

"So what was it like under there?" she asks with deliberate detachment.

"Horrible."

"How?"

"Hot."

"Stinky."

"That's an understatement," Jessica says.

"Crowded."

"Again, an understatement," she says. Impatient, she switches strategy. "I asked you to look for the meaning of words in context. What about when Equiano talks about the slaves 'falling victim to the improvident avarice...of their purchasers'?"

No one answers. Jessica writes the phrase "improvident avarice" on the board. Still, there is silence. Jessica calls on Addy Severino, one of her strongest students, but Addy says nothing.

"Lun," Jessica declares. "I saw the wheels turning."

"Means the slave traders were so greedy they killed off their own slaves."

"Obviously, Lun looked up some words," Jessica says approvingly. "Now, there's a part where Equiano describes himself being beaten. Why?"

"Because he wouldn't eat," Ottavio says.

"Why would they beat him for that?" Jessica asks with feigned innocence. "Why would they care?"

"He's a dollar sign," Ottavio answers.

"A dollar sign," Jessica repeats, glad to borrow the metaphor. "When they saw a slave, that's all they saw. A healthy kid, $2,000. Thin and scrawny, $500. And there's another part where Equiano tells about a slave being beaten to death. Can you figure out why?"

"For trying to escape?" someone offers.

"In a way," Jessica says, tilting her head and squinting as if reckoning a promontory on the horizon. "But he's in the middle of the ocean. Where's he gonna go? He can't just run away one or two miles."

"He wants to kill himself."

"And that is a kind of escape," Jessica says. She extends her right palm in a comforting, approving gesture, then fists the hand except for one pointed finger of inquiry. "But what do they care if he's gonna kill himself? Either way, he's a dead slave. They still lose that much money. So why beat him to death?"

This is a seminal question, and Jessica will not wait for volunteers. She conscripts Wilfredo Ayala.

"To make him an example so there won't be mass suicide."

"Maybe. But why? Addy?"

"Because they preferred death to slavery."

"To get the point across," says a boy named Julio Valentin.

"What's the point?"

"To make a threat so no one else will try suicide."

"But the slave's still dead," Jessica says. She shifts gears. "Think of it this way: What rights do you have as a slave? Aracelis?"

"As a slave, you have no rights."

Harriet thinks of what a clean answer that was. How'd she know what to say? She adds a note and a question mark to the lengthening list on her pad.

"Right," Jessica says to Aracelis. "On a slave ship you couldn't decide where to sleep, what to eat, when to go to the bathroom. What's left? Jose?"

"No rights."

"No," Jessica says with uncharacteristic oomph. "There's one right left. What is it? Aracelis?"

"The right to live or die."

Again, Harriet is struck. How'd she pull that answer out? Was it Jessica? Or the girl? Or the lesson? If it was the lesson, is that good or bad?

"The perfect slave is the person with no choices," Jessica says in summation. "The person who's had that last right taken away. The right to decide whether to continue breathing or not."

Jessica lets her words linger. She scans the faces assembled before her. How many of them believe they have choices? How many are willing to surrender the choices they have? She stresses that point about the perfect slave, hoping some will grasp its relevance to their own lives. But you hardly ever know. You look in someone's eyes, you see the light ignite, you wonder how long the flame will flicker. You wonder if you made any difference at all. Harriet, sitting in the back, must know the feeling.

The moment passes. Jessica proceeds onto another incident, the beating of a white sailor by the ship's officers. Arms wag, voices compete. It is a good day, a good day to be seen, one of those days when Jessica stands in front like a silver disco globe, catching light from one direction and shooting it out in another, just turning and shining and turning and shining. The bell rings and Jessica talks through it. Some of the students rise, but many remain seated, listening and perhaps learning.

Harriet writes a note about the kids staying seated. It is the last note on her pad. She is not sure what she learned by watching. She has questions without answers, and she cannot tell how much answers might help. Jessica's style is not her style, and yet something here provokes her, something Teachers College could never teach. Harriet asks Jessica if she can see her after school. Then she shoulders her backpack and skims across the linoleum toward her own class, looking altogether scurried.

A pale blue sky, sunless in the late afternoon, hangs above the housing project, outside the English office window. The north wind drives newspapers down Essex Street like tufts of sagebrush. In the hours near noon, the day had achieved a hint of warmth, but Harriet and Jessica, seated at the long table, know only the chill that shoved them toward Seward Park this morning and that will hasten them home tonight. It is past 4 on a Friday, and they have the office to themselves. A tousled morning Times and two empty cans of Diet Pepsi sit on the table, the daily detritus. Jessica opens her Delaney book, which contains the cards with each student's name, nickname, homeroom, address, telephone, and one parent's name, and places a pen above her right ear. Harriet lays down her purse and backpack and pushes aside a pile of homework to clear room for her notes from Jessica's morning class.

That they are tired is a given. The proof is in their eyes. These eyes, forced to shine for students all day and all week, take on the dull cast of a stagnant pond. On the flesh beneath them, dark lines fan toward the cheeks. Each woman has two--no, three--sets of lines, each tinted the purple of a bruise, each etched deeply as detail in terra cotta. History teacher Bruce Baskind has a name for this condition: the raccoon badge of honor. It is true that insomnia or a new baby or a long commute could cause the same symptoms, but the raccoon badge is the medal of the devoted teacher, the teacher up late reading essays, the teacher up early decorating a classroom, the teacher still in school as Friday's firmament darkens.

"Do you give them journal questions every day?" Harriet asks.

"Yes," Jessica says. "Ben [the former English department chairman] and I used to argue about it. He thought they were a waste of time. But I disagree. It's important kids get their ideas on paper."

"I think that's important,'' Harriet seconds. "It tells them you're interested in what they have to say. And..." She yawns and briefly loses the thought "...that writing can teach someone.''

"It's also--and with the autobiographies, too-- that they want me to know things," Jessica says. "Sometimes it's like, 'You read it yet? You read it yet?' They want you to know."

The clatter of a custodian emptying garbage cans interrupts.

"The thing I noticed the most, and the comparison depressed me, is you don't have a chatter problem," Harriet says. She frowns. Her voice is solemn. She might have been speaking of a terminal disease.

"You oughta see my journalism class," Jessica says. "They're hanging from the chandeliers. Sometimes it's just the combination of kids."

"But what makes it different? This class seemed to attend on you so closely."

Jessica wipes a few stray curls clear of her eyes.

"It may not help you to hear this," she says, "but it's a matter of putting in the years, getting the confidence in yourself." She pauses. "But I still have days. I had to really yell at my journalism class the other day. They were being really obnoxious. There's one girl who's had a chip on her shoulder, and the other kids got pulled in by it, and I had to scream at them."

"What do you say? 'Don't do it.'"

Jessica explains. The class was posing in a hallway for its yearbook portrait. Only five minutes remained in the period. An argument broke out because no one wanted to kneel in the front row; the floor dust would ruin their clothes. Now only 30 seconds were left. It was all so bratty that Jessica snapped. It was a privilege to be in the journalism class, a privilege to be on the Seward World staff. Anybody who disagreed could get out of the picture. Then, sure enough, they all shut up and posed.

As Jessica finishes her account, Denise Simone, another English teacher, enters the room. She has just locked up the College Discovery office for the weekend, as usual having had to shoo home a couple of kids, and she is recruiting company for Mexican food and margaritas. From the pieces of conversation she heard on her way in, she knows a rapid exit is unlikely, and so she takes a seat and listens. Beneath her ringlets of raven hair, she wears the raccoon badge.

"You know that bad class I had?" Harriet asks. Jessica nods. "I still have it. The kid Louie hates me. I know it. I talked to him once. I said, 'What don't you like about me?' 'I dunno.' I said, 'Pretend I'm a friend.' 'You're boring.'"

"What do you think?" Jessica says.

"I don't have a clue."

"C'mon," Jessica says in taxi-driver tones. "Could it be because you're young? Or he's attracted to you?"

"I can't tell," Harriet says, seemingly embarrassed at the notion. "There's just this tension."

"Well, he isn't gonna tell you,'' Jessica says. Then her voice softens. "He may not understand it himself.''

"I moved him to the back of the room, and things seem better," Harriet says, reassuring herself more than Jessica.

Denise unbuttons her wool overcoat. At the age of 29, it has not been many years since she shook with the same anxiety. If anything, she had it worse, for early in her teaching career she landed in Brooklyn's Prospect Heights High School, where eight teachers were attacked by students in her first two weeks on the job. Having aspired to teach since she led classes for a Chatty Cathy doll in her kitchen, Denise almost resigned amid the bloodletting. Only a transfer to Murrow High School convinced her to continue.

"Have you tried calling parents?" she asks Harriet. "Once you call the parents of your five worst kids, the next day they come in and say"-- she affects a dull, sullen voice--"'Man, she called my mother.' Then the whole class straightens up."

Harriet acknowledges she has not called Louie's parents. It is too extreme a step. She wants a resolution within the classroom. She is striving for a style that is "firm and nice."

"How about writing a guidance referral," Denise says. "Maybe the kid's having problems at home. With his mother. Or his girlfriend."

"So, uh, what's a guidance referral?" Harriet asks sheepishly.

"You have to find out first who his guidance counselor is," Jessica says. "I hope it's Nancy Wackstein. She can do anything."

Harriet makes a note. Jessica returns to the prevailing topic.

"So what can I say?" She turns her palms toward the ceiling.

"It's a terrible thing to say. But it's a matter of time. My first few terms were bananas."

She tells Harriet about teaching Spanish bilingual history without knowing either Spanish or history. She tells Harriet about the "repeater" class of World History II. Harriet taps her foot rapidly. She pinches her pen between thumb and forefinger.

"So why'd it change?" she asks.

"Experience."

"But if you have to get from this point to that point, how can you get there quicker?"

"I think you're smarter than I was," Jessica says, "and more mature."

"How old were you when you started teaching?"

"Let's see...30."

"So you were more mature."

Age is a pointless cul-de-sac. Denise suggests that Harriet choose several strong teachers to observe regularly.

"I keep saying I'm going to," she answers, "but so much of my time gets eaten up."

"You're trying to learn so many things," Jessica says. "Delaney cards. Lunch books. Transportation passes. How to write a pink slip. What note to accept. What note not to accept. Those are things that will fall into place."

"You may just be hard on yourself," Denise adds. "Your kids seem to like you." She smiles. "My first year teaching, I used to come home so nuts I had to keep a bottle of blackberry brandy in my room. I'd have to come home, take a shot, and veg out in front of the TV."

"And if I had to write a new lesson plan every day, I'd go crazy," Jessica says. "You can spend two hours on a great creative idea, then it doesn't work on the kids. You bomb and you feel everything that goes with that."

The office is silent. The sky over the housing project, blue not so long ago, is coal black. Clouds stifle the stars. The only lights on the eastern horizon are bulbs burning in the kitchens of the housing project. The building itself fades into the evening, leaving the electric pinpricks afloat in an inner-city constellation.

"Shall we go?" Denise asks.

Jessica and Harriet agree they shall. The destination is a restaurant in the East Village, not far away. Denise and Harriet plan to return to school after dinner for a dance. Jessica will pass. Everything lately seems to remind her how spent she is. A former student visits her and recommends a vacation to Club Med. The Dominican girls on Seward World offer her a "fashion make-over." The mimeograph she typed for English 7 early this morning, listing possible choices for the required book report, is studded with mistakes. Maes Agee. Last of the Mohegans. To Kill A Nocking Bird. She needs sleep more than a high school dance.

"So you think I should just wait it out?" Harriet asks Jessica as the three women walk down the deserted hall.

"It's all right to freak out," Jessica says. "I remember people telling me I'd stop crying after a few years, and that's no good to hear. It's like a teenager with acne. The last thing you want is for your mother to say, 'Just wait a few years and you'll be beautiful.'"

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