Up the Down Staircase


068) Up the Down Staircase by Bel Kaufman, finished November 6
I only know about Up the Down Staircase from a poster of the play put on by one of the schools in Clovis when I was in junior high. If memory serves, it was my school's play the year before I arrived. Anyway, I remember the purple and white poster, and I remember assuming it was about an apartment complex. I had no idea it had been one of the major phenomenons of mid-century America, a look at public schooling that reached an international audience, had been widely taught in schools, made into a well regarded film, had seriously altered the conversation in education in America. No idea.

The book was lent to me by a fellow teacher after I shared with her this email exchange:
From: Theric
Sent: Wednesday, August 22, 2012 9:34 AM
To: Helpdesk
Subject: IE9


I've had a couple websites present notices that they are on the verge of discontinuing support of IE7. So I tried to download IE9, but my machine won't let me install it without admin authorization. Help?


From: ITSSub On Behalf Of Helpdesk
Sent: Wednesday, August 22, 2012 9:41 AM
To: Jepson, Eric
Subject: RE: IE9

Please contact helpdesk
It reminded her of Up the Down Staircase so she brought it and told me to read it, with the introduction that her father had been unable to get more than a few pages into the book as it was too painful to read. It can't really be like this, he said. It is, she said. This must be an enormously over-the-top satire, he said. Not really, she said. To me, she said, you'll understand. And I do.

Times have changed since 1965. Although Delaney cards are still in wide use (see image above), I had never heard of them. Integration is managed, if not institutional racism. Dropout rates have decreased. We use email to communicate now. Fewer teachers come to work just to coast.

But otherwise, yeah, this is what it's like to teach. Some students genuinely do not know how to sit down and shut up. Some administrators worry more about paperwork than pupils. The percentage of my time spent on nonsense (defined here as not teaching) is embarrassing. If you want to know what it feels like to be a teacher, try this book.

One thing I learned from reading this novel is that I am definitely on public ed's side. When the hero of the book has a chance to go teach as a nice private college with small classes and her beloved Chaucer, I did not want her to leave. She was doing so much good at Calvin Coolidge High!

But then, when she did return to the classroom, I could help but feel oppressed on her behalf. Trapped.

Sometimes it's hard to believe that making a difference in the lives of kids is enough.

But somehow we keep coming back for more.

Teachers are nuts.


But that's old news. With the exception of the first and last chapters (which consist of tagless dialogue), the novel is made of found documents. Admin missives, student suggestions, letters to friends, a student notebook, turned-in essays, etc. Together they build a solid sense of what Sylvia Barrett's first year of teaching is like, both highs and lows, and what New York PSs were like in 1965. As a historical document, even though it's satiraical fiction and not real found documents, the novel is priceless. The fact it was so popular (and remained popular for so long) suggests how true audiences felt it to be.

And that it has fallen aside suggests to me that the market may be ripe for a new book hitting similar points.

I'm thinking about it.

I'll let you know.
a few weeks

what else i've been reading


  1. This is one of those books I remember reading several years ago and having opinions about, only to stop and think about it now and realize that I don't remember what my opinions were.

  2. .

    [Edit: Corrected number, 68 rather than 66.]