Bel Kaufmann’s 1964 classic Up the Down Staircase is possibly one of the most popular novels about US public schools. The author never intended to write what was to become a bestseller and a classic on education. It was simply a fictionalized account of her own struggles as a teacher. Before it became a book, it was first accepted by The Saturday Review of Literature as a three-page article and was published on 17 November 1962, under the title ‘From a Teacher’s Wastebasket’. A zealous editor from Prentice Hall discovered the article and saw in it the possibility of a path-breaking novel. The story was then expanded into this beloved novel that has been translated into many languages over the years and run into numerous reprints.
While there are many points to ponder upon in the book, there are certain aspects that have given me a great deal of food for thought and it is these that I would like to share with the readers.
Up the Down Staircase
The title Up the Down Staircase has an interesting origin. In those days, school stairs were marked with ‘Up’ and ‘Down’ signs on either side to facilitate traffic. Any student going against the determined direction would be detained for causing chaos. The author, having struggled against the inflexibilities of a rigid school system, chose the title Up the Down Staircase to indicate the pettiness of the system and as a metaphor for going against the traffic, bucking the system.
Let it be a challenge
The story is located in ‘Calvin Coolidge High School’, a fictional New York City high school representing a composite of all the schools where the author had taught. Although written in the West, the challenges, frustrations, trivialities, and absurdities of the school system and the tempestuous struggles in search of the self in the life of teenagers ring true across the world. From struggling with red tape to overcrowded classrooms to staff shortage and inadequate funding, the troubles of teachers take on a universal hue. What is also striking is that although the story was initially written in 1961, the issues and questions the book raises seem even more relevant now, and more urgent.
Through the words of the protagonist Sylvia Barett, the young, inexperienced, idealistic teacher who finds herself in the maelstrom of an average city high school, the author brings to us “a tale of chaos, confusion, cries for help, bureaucratic gobbledygook, and one teacher’s attempt to make a difference in the life of one youngster.”
Every teacher reading the book would relate immediately to the struggles of Sylvia Barett. The story of a young teacher, who wants to reach out to her students, make a difference in their lives and to ‘educate’ them, but finds herself constantly trying to cope with demeaning non-teaching chores, deadening bureaucracy, piles of clerical work, inadequate facilities, and a heavy teaching load, finds resonance in the experience of dedicated teachers across the world.
From Ms Barett’s letterbox
Written in a humorous and witty style and presented to the readers through a series of ‘intra-school communications’ including memos, circulars, directives from the Board of Education, student reports, forms, announcements, class minutes, and comments from the kids themselves, the book brings alive life inside an inner city school.
From the suggestion box
The author uses the suggestion box in the classroom of Sylvia Barett to bring us the voices of the students. The scribbled notes and sketches give us a rare peek into the hitherto untold inner life of a youngster. In their candid comments about classes, assignments, exams, grading, and even the dressing of the teacher, the children take us through the landscape of their minds, and teach the teacher.
It is not just the problems of the teachers that the book highlights. The author sensitively portrays a plethora of issues children from an inner city school bring into the classroom. Through a range of characters such as Joe Ferone, Jose Rodriguez, Linda Rosen, and Harry Kagan among others, the author brings us closer to the angry, provocative, unsure, insolent, precocious teenager, waiting to be recognized, loved, and saved from the hostilities of the real world.
Love me back!
In the consistent, unfailing love of Sylvia Barett for her students, we get to see the kind of unconditional positive regard Carl Roger’s Person-Centered Education posits. The ability of the teacher to find something lovable even in the most difficult student and to make every student feel valued is truly inspirational. For all the teachers who wish to transform their classrooms into facilitative spaces, where the capacities of students bloom and they learn with willingness and excitement, there is a lot to take away from this book.
Debits and credits
The book takes a very balanced view of the situation of teachers and students. While shining a light on the problems, the book does not overlook the many victories of the teacher. In the floundering student who finds himself, in the near drop out who decides to stay, in the happy camaraderie of fellow teachers, in the concern of students when the teacher falls sick, and in the collective dismay of the class when the period bell rings, the author brings to us instances that uplift the teacher, allowing her to carry on. In the words of Sylvia’s colleague Bea, “Whatever the waste, stupidity, ineptitude, whatever the problems and frustrations of teachers and pupils, something very exciting is going on. In each of the classrooms, on each of the floors, all at the same time, education is going on. That’s how I manage to stand up.”
The author is Assistant Professor in the Department of Elementary Education, Lady Shri Ram College for Women, University of Delhi. She teaches courses on Child Development and Human Relations in Education. She can be reached at [email protected].
Interested in the book?
Up the Down Staircase is available on amazon.in and flipkart for sale. The ebook version is also available on these sites. Also don’t forget to catch the movie adaption of the book. Look for the movie by the same name.