It’s that time again! Happy back to school to all the teachers, students, parents, and child care providers out there! Today’s review is of a book all about one woman’s first year teaching. How do you think it went? Read on. . .
With that intriguing title, Up the Down Staircase caught my attention in a used book store a while back. I took it home to hoard until the name popped up as the oldest book that I own on my TBR of female writers. Bel Kaufman, born and raised in Russia, moved to the United States with her family when she was twelve and practically fell into teaching when she decided to take an education class in college because her best friend was enrolled. In front of the room during her student teaching, she knew she found her calling.
My copy of Up the Down Staircase was republished in 1991 with an introduction by Kaufman. In it, she notes, “Some reviewers paid me the ultimate compliment: They thought I had merely collected and arranged the material in the book. But everything in the novel is invented, except a few directives from the Board of Education, which I had to tone down for credibility.”
The novel is about Sylvia and her first year teaching high school English and home room in a New York City public school. We know this story: overworked teachers, students who don’t care, a draconian administration and disorganized Board of Education. Surprisingly, all of Up the Down Staircase is formatted as pieces of communication, not paragraphs: Sylvia’s letters to her friend Ellen, intraschool communications to other teachers, circulars from the principal or his assistant, bits of students’ assignments or their notes from Sylvia’s suggestion box, and notes from the Board of Education are some examples. Originally published in 1964, I was delighted to discover Kaufman had fought for and won the right to publish her book in the atypical form she desired.
Let me start by noting that my eleven years of teaching were all in college classrooms, but I did have many dual-enrolled high school/college students and have worked with sixteen-year-old students. Kaufman’s presentation of teacher life is so painfully realistic that I actually had a heart palpitation while reading (it feels like a big woosh and then a thud in your chest). To get her students writing, Sylvia asks them to describe their best friend. What she got back was so familiar to me:
My best friend is a good book. I enjoy good books that are educational very much. Books help your grammer and spelling. Also increase your vocabulary. I am a great reader of books. My best favorite is “Antony and Cleopatra” by Shakespeare. In this book I like the part where the author tries to show love. Where Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton make love which I like. I like other good books too, mostly classical.
Oddly, any student I met who felt that they were a prolific reader or writer was always one of the poorest in the class. My suspicion is that this student had a teacher who told them they were strong in English class, so the student failed to continue to develop his/her skills.
Another student implies that what they learn in class is of no value nor does it connect to their lives (poverty, joblessness, teen pregnancy, death, disabled or deceased parents, hunger): “Why do we study the Odyssy? Because everybody in high school at one time or another read it and now we have to read it because it’s our turn.” I was internally laughing and shaken by how little students change (which Kaufman also notes in her introduction).
When Sylvia tries to connect Ancient Greek Myths to her students, the other teachers warn her to avoid caring too much, as empathy for hundreds of students will eat her alive. Again, I found this relatable based on things I was told as a professor at different colleges and thus found a compelling reason to keep reading: so I could see my experiences but at a distance through Sylvia’s.
When I tell eager future teachers what my experiences were like, they politely imply that they will teach “the whole person” and use a new approach of respect and open discussions and creative assignments. HA, I say; as if the rest of us are grumpy, reading-from-the-PowerPoint monkeys. As if you are the first; as if you’re going to school us on something you’ve never done. Okay, now I am getting grumpy. Anyway! Sylvia is one of those naive hopefuls, and her first day sets the scene perfectly through her descriptions of what happened in an intraschool communication to a seasoned teacher, Bea:
I checked off 2 1/2 items from some 20 on the list of things to be done.
A boy fell of his chair.
Nothing in my courses on Anglo-Saxon literature, or in Pedagogy, or in my Master’s thesis on Chaucer had prepared me for this. I had planned to establish rapport, a climate of warmth and mutual respect. I would begin, I thought, with First Impressions: importance of appearance, manners, speech, on which I’d build an eloquent case for good diction, correct usage, fluent self-expression. From there it would be just a step to the limitless realms of creativity.
This first day failure establishes both setting and character well and prepares readers for the rest of Sylvia’s first year teaching. Kaufman captures teaching experiences beautifully within her chosen form.
A smattering of minor characters rounds out the school. While students are often the first blamed for a teacher’s misery, the administration and staff can make things challenging. Sylvia receives a circular declaring, “DISMISSAL BELL WILL RING AT 3:05 SHARP. THIS, HOWEVER, IS UNCERTAIN.” The librarian is possessive of books — she doesn’t want students in the library or to touch books, and is happy to blacklist them — and the guidance counselor has zero background in social work; she “swoops upon the kids and impales them with questions about masturbation.”
The English department chair is rumored to care and be a strong teacher, but even he creates frustrations. When he asks his faculty to tell him how many students are in each class so they can be shuffled around and average each room, Sylvia dutifully reports her class numbers: “. . . my average is not 33 but 44 3/5 students per class. . . . Also, the Book Room has no Mill on the Floss — only Julius Caesar, and only enough for three-fourths of the class.” The chairperson merely sends a note back stating, “Let it be a challenge to you.”
It wouldn’t be a school novel if the teacher didn’t have one “bad boy” student whom she tries to tame. For Sylvia, it’s Joe Ferone. You wait and wait to see what happens between the two as he pushes her buttons and she counters with infinite patience. According to the author, readers send her letters asking what happened to Ferone, as if he were real, a testimony to Kaufman’s ability to write a compelling story.
It’s not all Blackboard Jungle or To Sir, With Love — these students face real problems that won’t be solved thanks to one teacher. Up the Down Staircase is a compelling, emotional, realistic novel, set in 1964 but just as relevant today, about a a new teacher’s journey into the disastrous American school system.