In Bel Kaufman’s Up the Down Staircase, we step into the shoes of a harried yet still idealistic teacher. Despite the fact this takes place in a 1960s New York City public high school, teenagers will always be teenagers and bureaucracy is timeless, so I’m sure teachers are still fighting the same uphill battles.
This one surprised me. I didn’t think I would enjoy it as much as I did. The first and last chapters are all conversations–the chaos that reigns inside a high school English classroom. We get to know the various characters through letters, clippings, and discarded notes retrieved from the trash can, student essay assignments, correspondence from the Board of Education, and memos, memos, memos from the various administrative offices in the school itself.
All combined, you get a clear glimpse of the foolish and time-wasting bureaucracy that takes place within the school’s halls, the frustrations of the teachers and the students and the administrators themselves, and the heartbreaking circumstances of the underprivileged students in their oft-times dismal home lives.
Despite all this, you walk away with a spirit lifted with the assurance that there are caring and competent teachers out there willing to do what they can for their students and give them hope in themselves and in their future.
“Let us not forget, though, the few, the rare, the unsung heroes and heroines of our profession who work their magic behind the doors of the classrooms, climbing up that down staircase against insuperable odds.” –Bel Kaufman
“Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for?” –Robert Browning