Book Review: Up the Down Staircase

UpDownStaircaseby Anniel8/31/15
This book took the world by storm when it was first published in 1964. The new e-book edition of 2012 has a lengthy introduction by the then 101 year old author, who was born on May 10, 1911 in Berlin, Germany and died on July 25, 2014, in Manhattan, N.Y., shortly after her 103rd birthday. She was the granddaughter of Schlomo Aleichem, the great Yiddish writer of the Tevye stories on which the play and movie Fiddler On The Roof were based.

It’s hard to believe Kaufman was going to college and looking for a teaching position in the depths of the Great Depression and died only a year ago. Time moves slowly, and then, looking back, it seems that it whipped by very rapidly.

Bel Kaufman was a stunningly beautiful and classy lady. In her book the students in the inner city school she wrote about never quite know how to respond to the fictional heroine’s beauty, nor to her great desire to actually teach them.

The first readers of the book were often teachers who thought that it mirrored their own experiences “in the trenches.” They were happy that someone was finally telling the truth about teaching and were glowing in their praise for Kaufman and her book. In her 2012 e-book Introduction Kaufman wrote:

The success of this book astounded me. It created dramatic reversals in my life that were like a soap opera I would never allow in my fiction. Denied a license to teach, I became a noted teacher. Having flunked the oral exams at the Board of Education, I became a professional public speaker. Struggling with poverty and loneliness, I was catapulted to fame, fortune and the affection of millions. Even the short story on which this novel is based was initially rejected by several magazines.”

My story was composed of scraps of paper presumably found in the wastebasket of a large metropolitan high-school classroom. Ironically juxtaposed, these papers told a tale of chaos, confusion, cries for help, bureaucratic gobbledygook, and one teacher’s attempt to make a difference in the life of one youngster. Magazine editors rejected it because, they said, it was “weird looking typographically” and it’s style was “too different.”

After the short story was published in a Scholarly journal (for which she received $200, minus a $20 agent’s commission), a young editor contacted Kaufman and asked her to expand the story into a novel. Kaufman absolutely refused until the editor gave her a much-needed advance, which she says she promptly spent and so had no choice but to write the book.

As her story clarifies matters, all of the book is a product of her own imagination, but based on her real frustrations and experiences, and those of other teachers.

Kaufman came to the U.S. From Russia at the age of 12, and spoke no English. She was placed in 1st Grade with 7 year olds where she had to learn the language by osmosis. Ever after she was accused of speaking too clearly and denied accreditation as a teacher because the children might not understand her and their speech might be corrupted.

The book was intended to be humorous, but it is also very serious. The teacher learns about what the pupils need from her, and also tells how often she totally misunderstands those needs. The structure of the book is strange, interspersed as it is with constant bureaucratic memos and notices, and questions about safety and repair concerns that are never addressed until disasters happen.

Sylvia Barrett, the heroine, also reveals her problems in letters she writes to a friend. In one letter she describes her fellow educators. You may have met some of the following:

. . .there are a few good, hard-working, patient people. . .who manage to teach against insuperable odds; a few brilliantly endowed teachers who- unknown and unsung- work their magic in the classroom; a few who truly love young people. The rest, it seems to me, have either given up, or are taking it out on the kids. . .
There is Mary Lewis, bowed and cowed. . . a willing martyr to the system. She’s an old timer who parses sentences and gives out zeros to kids who chew gum. . . There is Henrietta Pastorfield. . . who woos the kids by entertaining them, convinced that learning must be fun. . . Fred Loomis. . .who hates kids with a pure and simple hatred. “At the age of 15. . .they should all be kicked out of school and the girls sterilized so they don’t produce others like themselves. . .He comes in contact with some 200 children a day. . .

She names others, from the librarian who hates to see a book removed from a shelf, to the school nurse who must never treat a child, and the pseudo-psychologist who terrorizes the kids as she probes their most private lives. And things have only gotten worse.

One of the unsung heroes in the book is Grayson, the janitor, who hides out in the school basement and will not allow anyone else to come down, or so everyone thinks. In one of her letters Sylvia tells her friend:

It seems he runs a sort of one-man free-kitchen, lending-bank, drug-cure center, flop-house and employment center in the basement. While the rest if us were busy making out graphs and Character Capsules, he gave the kids sandwiches, lent them money, found jobs for them after school, or gave jobs to them himself. He kept them off the streets and “off the junk”, and on occasion let the temporarily homeless ones sleep illegally overnight in the basement. . .what some of the kids were getting from him was not the pedagogic gobbledygook, not concepts and precepts, not conferences and interviews, not pleas and threats, not words- not any words at all- but simple action, immediate and real: food, money, jobs. . .i admit a momentary pang of dismay: What tangibles could I offer them?

Makes me love Grayson after all.

I could go on forever about how wonderful this book is, but I must stop. If you read the book a long time ago, please do so again. At least read Kaufman’s new introduction to get more up-to-date about the state of education today.

Kaufman tells of speaking at a School for the blind when talking books were a new thing. She found it disconcerting to know the audience could not see her and she couldn’t tell from their expressions if they were paying attention and enjoying the talk. When she finished one man raised his hand and said:

“This is the best book I have ever heard.” I heartily agree.

Author: Bel Kaufman. First Published by Prentice Hall Press, 1964.
e-Book Open Road Edition, published August 7, 2012. • (1017 views)

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16 Responses to Book Review: Up the Down Staircase

  1. Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

    It sounds as if the characters in her book are timeless. There have always been such scoundrels in the teaching profession. Note how Dickens treats his character Squeers in “Nicolas Nickleby”. But the modern system of running schools on a factory basis has simply spread the pain.

    • Timothy Lane says:

      Dickens also had Mr. Creakle in David Copperfield (not to mention the vicious form of home-schooling that Murdstone engaged in).

  2. Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

    what some of the kids were getting from him was not the pedagogic gobbledygook, not concepts and precepts, not conferences and interviews, not pleas and threats, not words- not any words at all- but simple action, immediate and real: food, money, jobs. . .i admit a momentary pang of dismay: What tangibles could I offer them?

    I’m all for the teacher who gave zeros for kids chewing gum. I’m a bit dubious of the teacher who is convinced that learning must be fun. (It’s inherently work. There’s no getting around that. Incentives and “fun” can certainly help to move things along, but they cannot change the fact that anything worth knowing requires a certain amount of just plain work.)

    I don’t know if I’ll read this book or not. But I’m curious as to whether Kaufman was successful and noteworthy for being a teacher or whether she is this new breed of government “teacher” whereby they, perhaps by necessity, are taking the place of parents. It may be much to her credit that she helped people get food, money, and jobs. But that is more the purview of a social worker (or, better yet, a parent) than a teacher.

    • Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

      I’m a bit dubious of the teacher who is convinced that learning must be fun. (It’s inherently work. There’s no getting around that. Incentives and “fun” can certainly help to move things along, but they cannot change the fact that anything worth knowing requires a certain amount of just plain work.)

      There are some things which simply are and need to be learned, generally by rote. It is not unusual for such things to stick with us all our lives, like 15 x 15=225. Such learning gives us tools use throughout life.

      • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

        I wonder how much time is wasted these days on trying to make everything “fun.” As I understand it, Mr. Kung, rote learning is considered a big no-no in many quarters. We must instead enlighten the little skulls-full-of-mush and nurture their learning instinct, not stifle them with dull, grey, rote learning.

        I think one of the big problems in government schools is that they have too much adopted the idea that their job is to be an entertainer. Perhaps underlying this trend is the desire to be liked by the children instead of playing the role of the adult where respect is far more important.

        There’s nothing wrong with children actually liking their teacher. But the teacher should never fall into the trap of trying to be everyone’s buddy. There are there to fill young skulls-full-of-mush with the academic tools they need to make it in the world. That’s often going to require meting out discipline, due criticism, and work work work. Later, many of these former skulls-full-of-mush might look back and realize that those teachers they may have disliked or who thought were too tough had the most positive influence on their lives.

        • Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

          Perhaps underlying this trend is the desire to be liked by the children instead of playing the role of the adult where respect is far more important.

          I remember having to stay after school by my third grade arithmetic teacher. I was upset with him and asked him, “don’t you want us to like you?”. He replied, it was not his job to be liked by us, but to teach us arithmetic. Couldn’t argue with that.

          By the way, I believe many teachers today realize they are, to a large degree, babysitters. And babysitters who have little authority to discipline the little darlings.

          As regards rote learning, I wish I had paid more attention to spelling because English is often quite random as regards spelling and voicing of vowels.

          • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

            Spelling, grammar, and literacy (learning new words) is an ongoing process. But spelling checkers (noting Tim’s humorous note that “spell checkers” are what Wiccans might use) have degraded my spelling.

            I think there is a clear male/female split in regards to the point of education. For me, it’s learning the academic subjects. It’s not about socializing them. That’s the job of the parents. It’s not about inculcating them with a certain political or religious viewpoint (such as Progressivism). That’s the job of the parents.

            And that’s not to say that school is not to have the pledge of allegiance, for example. Certainly part of proper education has to do with giving a child some perspective in regards to where he lives. A certain amount of culture needs to be passed on, particularly in history (not revisionist history which is simply trying to indoctrinate people in Cultural Marxism).

            For sure, maintaining a certain respect for the teacher, for learning, and a peaceful and ordered decorum goes a long way to socializing children. But these are (or should be) things meant to continue normal and good practices of the parents, not a way to undermine them. And in cases where these values aren’t shared by parents at home, then the school indeed takes on the burden of providing a safe, disciplined, and effective educational program which goes against the grain.

            The alternative is letting the lunatics run the asylum. No matter how many iPhones may slip into the classroom, the point is not entertainment, to be liked, to socialize kids, to cater to their short attention spans, etc., etc. Okay, maybe that’s a huge task, but is it really a good alternative to do otherwise? Is it any less work? Will giving in to the natural inclination of children to conduct themselves as in the manner of The Lord of the Flies make anyone’s job easier? I think we clearly see that it does not.

  3. Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

    The book was intended to be humorous, but it is also very serious. The teacher learns about what the pupils need from her, and also tells how often she totally misunderstands those needs.

    Perhaps one needs to read the book in order to understand this. But I wonder if you could expand on that. And this is somewhat a loaded question in that I would presume that a teacher (properly trained) would know what the needs of the pupils are rather than the reverse.

    Are we talking about “needs” in terms of academic achievement or the aspect of government schools that has to do with providing counseling? If teachers these days are required to be mentors, counselors, and surrogate parents, no wonder that the academic subjects suffer as they do.

    • Anniel says:

      My goodness, I feel like a failure here. Bel Kaufman was one of the very good guys who wanted kids to actually learn. If you go back and reread it was a teacher who was a FAILURE who thought teaching should be fun. It was the JANITOR who was finding jobs, food and money for kids who had nothing, not even parents in some cases.

      The book was meant to acquaint readers with the bureaucratic mess the schools, particularly inner city schools, were in. Crumbling, dangerous buildings, lack of supplies, no chairs or desks, no chalk or blackboard erasers. Kids in high school who can barely speak, read or write. She came to teaching with visions of teaching the classics and having kids advanced enough to WANT to learn. She found that THE VERY LAST THING ON THE BUREAUCRATIC AGENDA WAS TEACHING.
      To her chewing gum was such a small item to give a zero over when kids had been locked out of their house by parents who didn’t care, so they had to sleep in halls, or maybe not sleep at all.

      In the midst of squalor and degradation the Principal knows nothing about his duties and refuses to listen. The Administrative assistant is more concerned with proper filing of memoranda and keeping them in the middle drawer. Some days teachers cannot even take attendance because of nonsense “rules” and forms and constant interruptions from administrative staff.

      Please, read the book and see what “real teachers” are faced with. Let me quote Kaufman: “Teachers still cope. They cope with demeaning nonteaching chores, deadening bureaucracy, paper miles of clerical work, inadequate facilities and heavy teaching loads. The same problems that have been ‘shelved’ for lack of time and ignored for lack of attention have remained, have proliferated, have become chronic. Minor infractions. . .have swelled into major crimes: assault, vandalism, arson, robbery, bullying, and worse. The ‘mugings and rapings’ children wrote about in ‘Up the Down Staircase’ have become more frequent. Teachers today lock their doors from the inside, hide their window poles, hold on to their wallets. They are still trying to teach, but for many it has become a question of survival.”

      Reading a book written 50 years ago, with the author still living to address it, is such an eye-opener. Believe me, Kaufman was one of the real deals in teaching.

      • Timothy Lane says:

        The notion of teachers giving up is also an aspect at one point in Mugger Blood, when Remo meets a teacher who tried to teach her students at a ghetto school, was attacked by parents who didn’t like the bad grades she handed out, received no support from the school administration, and finally gave it up as hopeless. Given what she faced, one can sympathize with her.

      • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

        The book was meant to acquaint readers with the bureaucratic mess the schools, particularly inner city schools, were in. Crumbling, dangerous buildings, lack of supplies, no chairs or desks, no chalk or blackboard erasers.

        Well, that gives me a better idea of what Kaufman is all about.

        Please, read the book and see what “real teachers” are faced with.

        I think that would have been a better focus for the article, Annie. And how Kaufman overcame these institutional difficulties. I got that you like her. But not why and what the situation was.

  4. NAHALKIDES NAHALKIDES says:

    There was of course a movie version starring Sandy Dennis in 1967 which I barely remember (I saw it in the 70’s) and a play version I remember a little better. While the play held my attention, and I imagine the novel would do likewise, it’s structurally very weak, consisting of unrelated strung-together single incidents (individually narrated by the different characters in the play version) much like an epistolary novel (a form I hate). It’s a slice-of-life type of deal, which means that from the outset it could only have been so good and never great (think of The Great Gatsby or Long Day’s Journey into Night and you’ll see what I mean – they are far more than mere slices of life as it was in the early 20th century).

    The play, by the way, de-emphasized the institutional shortcomings of public schools (the inevitable product of government control) and put the focus squarely on the individual characters (as I remember it 40 years later), which was a good idea.

    • Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

      an epistolary novel (a form I hate)

      To the best of my recollection, the only such novels I have read are,

      1. Dracula
      2. The Moonstone
      3. The Screwtape Letters

      I thought all were pretty good, but since I read Dracula in one sitting when I was 13 or 14, I still have a soft spot for it.

      I think the way Stoker uses each character to give his perspective on what is happening, while maintaining the narrative of the story is pretty good.

      I do definitely like the epistolary biography as one gets the subject’s words, not just someone else’s interpretation of the words.

      • Timothy Lane says:

        You might want to hunt up Leslie Klinger’s annotated edition of Dracula. (He also did a complete annotated edition of the Sherlock Holmes stories and novels. I have the entire set, as well as Baring-Gould’s earlier annotated edition.) I have The Moonstone (and The Woman in White), but don’t recall ever reading it. Of course, I’ve read The Screwtape Letters (and more than once), but I wouldn’t call it a novel.

        • Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

          I will have to look into Klinger’s annotated Dracula.

          I also read The Woman in White, which was ok, but I am not sure I would ever re-read it as I do may books,including Dracula.

          I am not quite sure what to call The Screwtape Letters, so I left in the group.

    • Anniel says:

      I have not read many epistolary novels, but I have always enjoyed the Screwtape Letters. I’m a nut who even enjoys the Pauline Epistles. Up the Down Staircase is much more than just letters. The book is kind of held together by her attempts to reach the school bad boy, Ferone. He seems so real to me. Someone wrote Kaufman and said they knew Ferone was not a real person, but they still wanted to know what happened to him. Kaufman’s answer was, “Me, too.”

      My biggest enjoyment of the e-book came from realizing what a long life Bel Kaufman had experienced and condensed into her writing. How many teachers all over the world have been affirmed and strengthened by her book but have no idea she lived so long and still could write about her thoughts so lucidly?

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