Summer is complete again, for all intents and purposes, and school is back in session. People return to class schedules and assignments, semester projects and extracurricular activities and since school is such an important part of our lives, it’s not surprising that it serves as the setting for many books. However,no story captured the American teacher’s perspective of that universe quite like Up the Down Staircase. This “education of an educator” is more than fifty years old but in terms of what a teacher faces, it’s right on the mark.
Most employees have one impossible party to please (retail clerks must please the customers; professional people must please their clients; government pleases itself.) but first-year teacher, Sylvia Barrett, is at the mercy of everyone: there’s the MIA Principal who pontificates via memo but wields the power to end her career; the petty tyrant in administration who dispense policies by the metric ton, supplies with an eye-dropper and no mercy whatsoever; the janitor who responds to every request for maintenance with the reply “nobody’s down here” and the students, all-knowing, all needy and mostly adverse to the concept of education. Sylvia’s opportunities to teach must be sandwiched between episodes of classroom umpiring and responding to directives like this:
TO: ALL TEACHERS
Polio Consent slips are due in Health Office before 3 P.M. today. – School Nurse
Ridiculous memo aside (who would consent to Polio?) the School Nurse is one of the frustrated good in this book, a health-care professional who may not render the aid the students need and she’s qualified to give because the School Board insists “a school nurse may not touch an injured student or administer treatment in any form”. Instead, the nurse is limited to completing health care forms and offering cups of tea to students who need so much more from her. Her cup of tea are a ludicrous offering until you realize it’s the only help she’s allowed to give. If this sounds too outrageous to be fiction, there’s a reason why.
The novel’s author, Bel Kaufman knew all about this impossible world. As the immigrant daughter of Russian Jews (her grandfather was the brilliant Sholom Aleichem) she learned to speak English at twelve when she was put into a class of American first-graders. She crammed 16 grades of education into the next 11 years, and earned a B. A. from Hunter College and a Masters in Literature from Columbia. Nevertheless, she wasn’t allowed to be a “real” teacher for years. The Educational Board in New York City that awarded teaching licenses questioned her ability to interpret poetry (Ms. Kaufman won this battle when she submitted a letter from the poet, verifying her interpretation was correct) and her accent during the Oral Examination portion of the of the tests. The Board refused to issue her a teaching license, although they still hired her to teach.
Kaufman at her desk
At that time, unlicensed teachers could be used for temporary assignments and Bel worked in the system as a “permanent substitute” meaning she did the same classroom work as a tenured instructor (and more non-teaching duties) for lower wages in “less-advantaged” public schools. Kaufman taught at the “challenging” inner-city schools, and, once licensed, in the city schools where educators pray they’ll find work. (They say she became the model for the English Instructor in the movie “Fame”.) The public schools with their ridiculous directives and mini-fiefdoms (imagine a librarian who denies everyone access to the books) good and bad teachers and unforgettable students became grist for her novel composed of “found” material: bureaucratic directives, trashed essay drafts and notes from a teacher’s suggestion box. It’s a brilliant format for storytelling.
After Up The Down Staircase spent more than a year on the best-seller’s list and was adapted into a movie and a play, Bel became a “teacher of teachers” by speaking at education conferences, but she never completely left the field of education. At the age of 100, she was still teaching, by then at her alma mater, Hunter College.
The science of education has evolved since Bel’s time but the life of a teacher has not. Any new instructor will find inspiring colleagues and educators unworthy of the title hiding in the faculty lounge as well as underachieving, troubled students and apple-polishers in every classroom. If the front office contains a visionary, diligent headmaster, there’s bound to be a back-biting administrative type who prefers appearances to content and bedevils the faculty with inane announcements and insane policies. Our new teacher will bring his or her own problems, talents and skills to the mix and the school year will roll on but, with luck, most of the students will learn. Despite all the policies, shortages and uninspired teaching, the students will learn and grow and when they leave, others will take their place. A few may even decide to come back as teachers themselves. The process is heartbreaking and sweet and as inevitable as the month of September.