Retro Review: Humor is a teaching tool in revisiting ‘Up the Down Staircase’

Retro Review: Humor is a teaching tool in revisiting ‘Up the Down Staircase’

“In homeroom … they went after me with all their ammunition:  whistling, shouting, drumming on desks, clacking inkwell lids, playing catch with the board eraser, sprawling in their seats to trip each other in the aisles — all this with an air of vacant innocence, while I stood there, pleading for attention, wary as a lion-tamer, my eyes on all 46 at once.”

And that was just the first day of school.

“Up the Down Staircase” is a funny, insightful, wistful novel about a first-year teacher’s experience on the front lines at a New York City public school.  The book was published 50 years ago and was no doubt based upon author Bel Kaufman’s own experiences as a teacher in the same school system.

The book is in epistolary form, told through letters, primarily intraschool memoranda, as well as excerpts from student reports, snippets from suggestion boxes, homework excuses, etc.

The teacher is Sylvia (Syl) Barrett, a pretty, fresh-out-of-college teacher who is assigned to teach English at one of New York City’s many overcrowded public schools.  

Syl communicates primarily with her old college roommate, Ellen, who chose marriage and children over a career, and Bea, another teacher in the school, who provides insight and advice, often in a very tongue-in-cheek manner.

It’s not long before Syl’s idealism is shattered, not just through the students who have every excuse in the world for being underachievers, but through the administration that attempts to thwart progress at every turn.  

The funniest, and most exasperating, are memos from the hated James J. McHabe, administrative assistant, such as, “Please anticipate your needs and request supplies before they are needed.”

There are memos about the bells and disregarding the bells and disregarding the memo to disregard the bells.

The title of the book is derived from a note issued by the administrator to admit a tardy student to class:  

“Detained by me for going up the down staircase and subsequent insolence.”

The teachers are practically forbidden from teaching, as there are too many conflicting rules, and they are drowning in paperwork.  In homeroom alone, the teachers have 21 items on their agenda; the memo ends with “Teachers with extra time are to report to the office to assist with activities which demand attention.”

Nurses are expressly prohibited from touching wounds, giving medications or from offering bandages; the school nurse simply treats all of her students with a cup of tea.  

At the end of each of Syl’s notes to Bea or Ellen, she bemoans certain facts about public education, such as noting that teachers devote 100 hours a year to homeroom chores, and that’s only on school time, and that the State Department has started a class in elementary composition for its officers, who cannot understand each others’ memoranda.

The kids come prelabeled, which serve as built-in low expectations for their progress. One of her classes is the SS — “special-slows,” the reluctant learners, barely distinguishable from the “low-normals” or the “average-normals.”  She tells her old college roommate in one of her letters:  “Under-achievers, non-academic-minded, slow, disadvantaged, sub-paced, non-college-oriented, underprivileged, non-linguistic, intellectually deprived, and laggers — so far, I’ve counted more than 10 different euphemisms for ‘dumb kids’!”

Her students are disadvantaged in many ways, including economically, or kids whose home lives leave them wanting.  Bright kids are failing, and even those with potential are discouraged from learning, as they are not allowed to come to school early to practice on typewriters or linger after school to use the library.  The students are not allowed to have feelings or opinions that are not specifically ordained by the administration, and only, of course, during the hours of 8:20 and 3:00.

The assigned essays reveal more about the students’ lives and hearts than their teacher had ever anticipated. For example, on the assignment entitled “My Best Friend,” one of the students writes:

“My best friend is Me, Myself and I.  I say this because you can’t trust anyone.  They tell you they’re your best friend, and behind your back they call you names like fatso.”

Syl is filled with idealism and fights against becoming jaded.  To be in a profession where victories are few is disheartening to Syl. She responds to the inane missives she receives from the administration in the only way she knows how:  with humor.

Not only is the book funny, it is also a social commentary on the state of education in America, or, at least in the New York public school system at the time.  Problems with race and economic disparity are highlighted.

While Kaufman mocks the bureaucracy and red tape from within the system (i.e., she had to bring a phonograph from home as the school administration was out of requisition slips to obtain the school’s audio-visual equipment), there is also an underlying pathos woven through the humor.

It is safe to say that the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree: it is clear that Kaufman inherited her wit from her grandfather, the Yiddish comedic writer, Sholem Aleichem.  Kaufman even taught a class on Jewish humor at Hunter College at the age of 100.

Kaufman, born Belle Kaufman, was born in Berlin in 1911 but moved to Russia as a small child. After the Russian Revolution, she and her family came to the United States, settling in New York.  Like her famous grandfather, Kaufman wrote many short stories, though she was best known for this book, which evolved from a short story.  The book became an instant classic, spending over a year on bestseller lists.

In 1967, “Up the Down Staircase” was turned into a movie starring Sandy Dennis.

Kaufman passed away last summer at the age of 103.

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