Last fall, I saw that one of the books that I loved as a high school student, Up the Down Staircase by Bel Kaufman, was being reissued as an ebook. I can vividly remember reading the slim book, a fictionalized account of Kaufman's experiences teaching in the New York City schools system in the 1950s and 60s.
The book became a movie starring Sandy Dennis, and I loved that too. Although at times it paints a very bleak portrait of NYC public schools, what shines through is the main character Miss Sylvia Barringer's love of teaching and her students. This book was responsible for many young women choosing teaching as a career.
The book covers Miss Barringer's first year teaching in a poor city high school. Most of the students came from poverty stricken families, and had so many other problems at home that school was either a refuge for them or a place they went to until they dropped out to get a job to help support their families.
Miss Barringer is baffled by the students' actions and the ridiculous clerical work required from the administration. She quickly learns the language:
"Keep on file in numerical order" means throw it in the wastebasket. "Let it be a challenge to you" means that you're stuck with it; "interpersonal relationships" is a fight between kids; "ancillary civic agencies for supportive discipline" means call the cops. "Non-academic minded" is a delinquent and "it has come to my attention" means you're in trouble.
She makes friends with an older teacher, Bea, who shows her the ropes and encourages Sylvia to hang in there and try to reach her students. (I think the author is a combination of Bea and Sylvia.) She puts a suggestion box in her classroom and she shares many of the notes that her students leave there.
The notes are funny, profane, and sometimes heartbreaking. We meet many of the students through them, including Edward Williams, who deigns to be class president and tries to impress Miss Barringer with his knowledge. Joey Ferrone is a tough guy, the one kid Barringer really wants to reach. She believes he hides his intelligence behind his rough exterior, and they have one interaction that is filled with tension.
The book started out as a magazine article containing many of the real student notes that Kaufman kept from her teaching days. The magazine liked it so much, it became a full-fledged novel.
I thought that in reading this book, it might feel dated to me, but it did not, and I'm not sure how that makes me feel. Schools are still filled with bureaucratic nonsense, and students in poor schools still get the short end of the stick. It makes me sad that in some ways we haven't come very far.
After we saw the heroic teachers in Newtown who gave their lives to save their students, it is the right time to read or re-read Up the Down Staircase. It's good to be reminded of the many people who believe in the importance of teaching our children, and the challenges they face as they do it.