Monday, August 19, 2013

Up the Down Staircase by Bel Kauffman


Up the Down Staircase by Bel Kauffman is celebrating 50 years in print and there’s a reason why this book has survived where so many others have fallen out of print.  This novel, about Sylvia Barrett’s first teaching experience in a New York City high school explores the challenges of being an English teacher, slogging through the bureaucracy while desperately trying to touch just one student’s life.  Kauffman drew on her experience as a teacher to create a vivid picture of what it is like for one young woman to try to make a difference.

What makes this novel unique is how the story is told.  Rather than using typical prose, Kauffman tells her story through school bulletins, notes exchanged between the teachers, letters the protagonist sends to her best friend, suggestions stuffed into the suggestion box, and more.  The ludicrous nature of the bureaucracy had me laughing aloud while some of the notes the students share are heartbreaking. 

In many ways, this novel is a product of its time.  It is quaint to read about glue-sniffing being a problem (now known as huffing) and that children malingering in the halls is a discipline problem when contemporary schools are facing far more serious issues.  Still, there are stories here that are as timely as any—students who are working to help their parents are too tired to turn in homework while others are being pushed by parents to drop out altogether because education is a waste of time.  Sylvia Barrett’s mother sends her newspaper articles about the dangers of a single woman living in The Big City while the students express their rage at the war, at racism, at how frustrating it is to be considered a minor when confronted with major world issues each and every day.

Yet the novel also manages to remain relevant, even timely, in spite of its Delaney cards and wood hall passes.  How does a teacher provide a thorough education to her students in the face of a librarian who doesn’t want any students to handle the books, a dearth of sufficient textual resources, in a classroom where there aren’t even enough chairs for all of the students to sit?  What is the logic of asking a teacher to send a student who is absent to the office to address the need for attendance, having an end term exam a few weeks into the term, or insisting a student should pay a late fee for a borrowed library book when the student is no longer enrolled? 

This novel will make you laugh, touch your heart, and frustrate and inspire all at once.  I read it when I was a teenager and again before I went to college.  I don’t go out of my way to reread novels now because there are so many wonderful books and so little time. Still, this one is a good one to revisit and I’m glad (very glad even) that I did.  And if you haven’t seen the movie, starring Sandy Dennis, it’s worth visiting as well.  Who knows?  Maybe I’ll be around for the 75th anniversary.  I have no doubt this book will still be in print for many more milestones.

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