Bel Kaufman, the author of Up the Down Staircase, has died at the age of 103.
Her autobiographic novel, a refreshing, witty and unerringly accurate look at the bureaucracy to end all bureaucracies—the American public high school—sold more than six million copies upon its 1965 release.
The storyline follows a young idealistic teacher, Sylvia Barrett, in her first months at Calvin Coolidge High School. She tries to reach the hearts and minds of her students amid administrative directives that don’t quite make sense, and teenagers who dare her to teach them anything.
In 1971, another young idealistic teacher (me) also began her career in education at an American public high school and was met with the same mystifying world of “Eduspeak” and the same lethargic students.
I do not know how I survived those first years of teaching. Barely older than my students, I simply lived by my wits. Somehow I knew that the glaring teenagers sitting in front of me were not the whole story… that there was more to them than the initial attitude they projected toward me (that of prisoners chained to their desks against their will).
Today, as I think of Bel Kaufmann and that long-ago Carol Engler, an image comes to mind: the face of a long-haired, long-legged young man sprawled in the first seat near the window of my classroom, Room 210. He wore a motorcycle jacket, boots, and insolence with great style. He dared me to teach him, and I tried everything from my limited bag of tricks.
Finally, one day, I brought a copy of The New York Times to class. I casually threw it on his desk. There was an article about motorcycle gangs on the front page. I said: “Thought you might like this.” I then went on teaching the class. He sat there, at first, seemingly indifferent. Then he picked up the newspaper and began to read. By the end of the class, he had read the entire section of the newspaper. As he left the room at the end of class he asked if he could take the newspaper home with him.
At this point you might be thinking to yourself, “And he went on to become valedictorian.”
In fact, I don’t know what happened to him after he graduated. (But he did graduate, which was a triumph for him and for me.)
But I do know this.
As I watched him out of the corner of my eye that day, absorbed in one news article after another from one of the greatest journalism sources in the world, I felt a sense of reaching down into someone’s soul and grabbing that soul… and hanging on.
At the end of Up The Down Staircase, Sylvia Barrett despairs to a colleague of ever being a good teacher. She is reminded by the veteran teacher that—despite all the mindless administrative directives, all the discipline issues and all the craziness—there is education going on in every single classroom of the school. It can be heard through the open doors as verbs are conjugated, books are read, thoughts are expressed. The veteran says: “That is how I stand up.”
So, as I view education from the vantage point of a four-decade veteran, I am reminded that 49 years after the publication of that book, education is still going on in every classroom in this nation, in every country of the world, and in virtual formats unheard of in 1965.
And that is how I stand up too.
The First Turning.