Samuel G. Freedman has authored seven books one of which is Small Victories: The Real World of a Teacher, Her Students, and Their High School. He is a frequent contributor to the New Yorker. This piece was published September 1, 2014.
In the course of a few decades, I became separated from my copy of “Up the Down Staircase,” Bel Kaufman’s classic novel about a New York City schoolteacher. So after Kaufman died, in July, at the age of a hundred and three, I felt compelled to reread the book. I called up my neighborhood Barnes & Noble to reserve a copy. Considering the stunning popularity “Up the Down Staircase” had enjoyed—it spent sixty-four weeks on the best-seller list after its release, in 1965, inspired a popular film adaptation in 1967, and ultimately sold more than six million copies—I assumed that the coverage of Kaufman’s death had renewed interest in the book, and that copies would be selling out.
Instead, very much to my surprise, the Barnes & Noble clerk informed me that “Up the Down Staircase” was out of print. Unconvinced, I checked several online booksellers, and, sure enough, no current edition was available. So I grabbed a copy from the library, and as I plunged into it I realized just how sadly appropriate it was that the book had fallen into obsolescence What place can there be for a book about the large struggles and little glories of a teacher, at a time when teacher bashing has become a major strain, even the dominant strain, of what passes for “education reform.”
There is no small amount of autobiography in “Up the Down Staircase.” Kaufman was the granddaughter of the renowned Yiddish author Sholem Aleichem, whose Tevye stories inspired “Fiddler on the Roof.” She came to America as a twelve-year-old immigrant from Russia, and, like many Jewish immigrants, she used public school as a ladder of upward mobility and Americanization. And, like so many Jewish women of her era, she then became a teacher herself. She ultimately spent about thirty years in New York’s public schools, and those experiences deeply informed “Up the Down Staircase.”
Kaufman’s story centers upon Sylvia Barrett, a first-year teacher at a massive public high school named after Calvin Coolidge. At its most straightforward level, the book follows Barrett through one semester, as she learns her own craft through trial and error, and gives up a job offer from an élite private school in order to stay at overcrowded, underfunded Coolidge, where she is so desperately needed. Yet Kaufman composed the book in an almost presciently postmodern style, largely assembling her story through an accretion of found objects: bureaucratic circulars, homework assignments, wastebasket contents, doodles, and interoffice memos among teachers.
Though Sylvia is unmistakably the story’s heroine, Kaufman was no sentimentalist. Coolidge High has dropouts, runaways, mind-numbing rules, a lunchroom riot, intimations of heroin use out in the neighborhood. Sylvia’s students are reading, she estimates, at a fourth- or fifth-grade level. When she pours her attention into a brutish boy with some intellectual talent, he misreads the gesture as a come-on and very nearly rapes her. Another of Sylvia’s students, a sixteen-year-old girl, tries to commit suicide after the male teacher whom she adores returns a love letter she wrote him, line-edited as if it were a term paper. Sylvia’s nickname for her assistant principal is Admiral Ass, and some of her colleagues, she writes, are “the bitter, the misguided, the failures from other fields,” who “find in the school system an excuse or a refuge.”
I have spent a good part of my journalistic career writing about education, which has involved going into schools and seeing teachers teach. To revisit “Up the Down Staircase” was to find myself in a recognizable and deeply truthful place. And to follow Sylvia Barrett on her exhausting and exhilarating trajectory was to see, in fictional form, many of the teachers I have admired for doing their valiant work in obscurity, at best, and amid societal contempt and scapegoating, at worst.
One reason “Up the Down Staircase” has aged so well has to do with the particular moment in which its story is set. Kaufman’s own teaching career coincided with a golden age in public education, and it was a golden age for some largely ignored reasons. Public schools were only expected to send a small fraction of students on to college. Congress’s restriction of immigration in 1924, not fully lifted until 1965, gave schools two generations to acculturate and assimilate newcomers. The horrific job market during the Great Depression, combined with commonplace sexism of the day, filled public-school faculties with overqualified educators, many of them women with no other career options apart from nursing.
At Coolidge High, though, the ground is beginning to shift. One of Kaufman’s characters is a black student sent there as part of an integration plan. Several others are Puerto Rican. Even before the urban upheavals of the nineteen-sixties, the relaxing of immigration laws, and the white flight from big cities and urban public schools, Kaufman was able to register and record the tremors of change. And she fully grasped the thankless position of the teachers left to impart knowledge and instill citizenship in the face of awesome obstacles.
Around the same time that “Up the Down Staircase” was published, New York City was convulsed by a battle over community control of public schools. The struggle reached its apogee between 1967 and 1968, with the installation of a black governing board in the Ocean Hill-Brownsville section of Brooklyn, its dismissal of several dozen white teachers, and a series of citywide teachers’ strikes in response. In retrospect, one of the most significant aspects of the controversy over “decentralization,” as community control was formally called, was how it fostered the idea of teachers as the enemy. Decentralization was the product of an alliance between organizations run by liberal élites, such as the Ford Foundation, and low-income black and Puerto Rican communities. This created a pincer effect, with middle-class white teachers and principals portrayed, from both above and below, as the problem. They didn’t live where they taught; they didn’t care.
The race-baiting element of teacher bashing has subsided over the years, as many nonwhites have gone into teaching. But the alliance against teachers remains intact, and, if anything, it has grown stronger. Today, the élites are not only foundations but also hedge-fund philanthropists and politicians from both parties. Teachers’ unions are routinely portrayed not as legitimate stakeholders but as nefarious special interests. The mass firing of teachers—whether in Central Falls, Rhode Island, or by Michelle Rhee during her reign as schools chancellor in Washington, D.C.—are widely hailed as an overdue cleansing of the Augean stables. Hurricane Katrina provided a convenient excuse for getting rid of virtually the entire teaching and administrative staff of New Orleans’s public schools.
The antipathy toward teachers is often expressed through extolling the exceptional ones. In the nineteen-eighties, that meant books and films and TV shows about Jaime Escalante and Marva Collins. In the current moment, it means valorizing Teach For America participants, who commit only two years to the job. And it means, as in the documentary “Waiting for Superman,” believing that charter schools are the answer precisely because they aren’t in the devious hands of teachers’ unions and career educators. After I finished reading my library copy of “Up the Down Staircase,” I discovered that it is also available as an e-book. So I can only hope that the download generation will discover it. Kaufman did not write a period piece; she wrote the most enduring account we have of teachers’ lives—not naïve, not exculpatory, but empathetic and aware. Early in the book, Sylvia writes, in a letter to a college classmate who is living in the suburbs:
“I’m told that Calvin Coolidge is not unique; it’s as average as any metropolitan school can be. There are many schools worse than this (the official phrase is ‘problem-area schools for the lower socioeconomic groups’) and a few better ones. Kids with an aptitude in a trade can go to vocational high schools; kids with outstanding talents in math, science, drama, dance, music, or art can attend special high schools which require entrance exams or auditions; kids with emotional problems or difficulties in learning are sent to the ‘600 schools.’ But the great majority, the ordinary kids, find themselves in Calvin Coolidge or its reasonable facsimile. And so do the teachers.”