THE BLOG
08/11/2014 04:43 pm ET Updated Jun 19, 2015

Up the Down Staircase

The recent news that Bel Kaufman died at the age of 103 prompted me to reread her classic tale of a young teacher, fresh from her master's in English literature, arriving at a New York City high school only to find out just how chaotic, disorganized, and discouraging life in a badly run bureaucracy can be.

Almost the entire book consists of documents -- notes, assignments, memos, homework, and letters -- that allow the reader to share the bewilderment of a new teacher being bombarded by memos demanding compliance with regulations regarding wooden lavatory passes, Accident Reports, and unauthorized student chalk-using -- but holding no promise of help.

So, for example, her protagonist, Sylvia Barrett, was required to fill out weekly forms on the physical condition of her classroom, but the window remained broken through the winter.

Although aspects of Up the Down Staircase are dated (does anyone even use chalk anymore?), Kaufman's central point that dysfunctional and badly led schools frustrate teachers and actively harm students couldn't be more relevant today.

Until I read her obituary in the Washington Post, I hadn't realized that her mordant wit, so reminiscent of the literature of Russia and Eastern Europe, was in fact directly related to it. She was the granddaughter of Shalom Aleichem, who was during his lifetime popularly known as the "Yiddish Mark Twain" and whose tales of a shtetl were adapted as the popular play and movie Fiddler on the Roof.

Kaufman herself was born in Berlin in 1911 and spent most of her first 12 years in Odessa, Ukraine, before her family moved to the Bronx. According to the Post, she talked of having vivid memories of the Russian Revolution. When she arrived in New York she knew no English and found help and support from her public school teachers. She earned her bachelor's degree at City University's Hunter College and her master's in English literature from Columbia University. Her Russian accent kept her from being accepted to the New York teaching force for a while, but she was eventually accepted and taught for many years before writing a short story, "From a Teacher's Wastebasket," in the Saturday Review of Literature in 1962. A sharp-eyed book editor prevailed upon her to write what became one of the most popular books of the 1960s, called by Life magazine "Merely the most excellent and truthful picture of a contemporary American teacher's life that we are likely to have for a long time to come."

The edition I have was printed in 1991 and has a new introduction by Kaufman in which she said that she was still seeing the same kinds of absurdities that she had written about in the early 1960s. "In one school, above the time clock, I saw a notice that could have come straight out of Up the Down Staircase: 'The clock is broken. Punch in anyhow.'"

She ends the introduction with a tribute to teachers that still seems relevant:

"Whether in 1964 or 1991, good education means good teachers. All over the country, in spite of all difficulties, teachers have been working their daily miracles in the classrooms. I see them at their statewide conventions; I meet them in their schools - teachers devoted to their students, teachers committed to education, teachers to whom this book is dedicated.

"They are there because of the rewards. No outsider can see what these rewards are. They are not on any plaque or medal. They are certainly not on any paycheck. But they are immeasurable. A child's face lights up: 'I get it! I see!' A child, grown to adulthood, says, 'I had a teacher once ...' A teacher who had made a difference. Perhaps at this very moment, someone someplace is saying this about a Sylvia Barrett. It's a kind of immortality.

"The potential power of good teachers is awesome. Today our children need them more than ever."

I'd love to hear whether educators today still find Up the Down Staircase resonates with their experience.

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