by Anniel 8/31/15
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.