Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Up the Down Staircase

Oh, my gosh, it's Bel Kaufman's 100th birthday!  Thank you, Writer's Almanac!  You can read all about Bel there, or a brief article here, at Wikipedia.  As you can see if you click the wik, there is no free image of Bel for me to use, so I am showing you Sandy Dennis, from the film version of Up the Down Staircase, a book that just thrilled me when I read it, probably as a pre-teen preparing for high school!

Then, when I got to high school, there was sort of an "up the down staircase" situation! It wasn't as strict or ludicrous a rule as in the book, but there was a preferred time for going up and down a certain staircase, sort of like rush hour lanes on Lake Shore Drive or escalators at the train station. Well, not even that strict. You could go against the flow and be smashed.

Hmm, as I ponder my life, that is my life. But that's another story.

Bel Kaufman's story is hilarious and satirical and could warm the cockles of many a frustrated or urban teacher's heart. It's an epistolary novel, proceeding mainly by way of letters and memos, the story unfolding inside these documents, as with Dracula! And there are urban high school horrors, as well.

The Writer's Almanac tells us how Bel Kaufman really, really wanted to be a teacher and had a hard time passing the oral exam because of her Russian accent; it seems the examiners were predisposed against her, as well, flunking her on her interpretation of an Edna St. Vincent Millay poem even after Vincent herself praised the interpretation! Kaufman then used her novel to expose this kind of incompetence and bureaucracy as well as other obstacles in the public school system of her time, also revealing the dedication to teach and the desire to learn that can survive alongside such obstacles.

Speaking of high school teachers, I enjoyed learning more about Justin Evans, teacher and poet, in two blogs this week. Sandy Longhorn discusses his new book, Town for the Trees, here, and Kristin Berkey-Abbott, who had earlier also reviewed this book, interviews him in her blog, here. Look closely at his answers to questions #7 and #8, aspiring poets and teachers!! Read, read, read, he says! And don't enter into teaching lightly!

(And I'd add, read Up the Down Staircase!)

I was tickled that, in the Wikipedia article, Bel Kaufman confesses that she hates writing. It is hard to do, for many people, including writers! My daughter was working on a paper for school last night, and there I was advising some "prewriting," which indeed she tried, despite resistance. Encouraging her, I also called it her "messy draft," the fun term from elementary school. I thank all those teachers who work so hard to help our children and students learn, think, and write! Thank you, thank you, thank you.

Hang in there, all you tired public school teachers, here in May as the year winds up and down!


Collagemama said...

Our junior high had a One Way Hall, so we appreciated the Down Staircase. The paperback sat on my shelf for decades until it disintegrated. Thanks for the happy memory.

Kristin Berkey-Abbott said...

I'm late in thanking you for the link and the kind words--but on the better late than never premise, thanks!