Boris's Reviews > Up the Down Staircase

Up the Down Staircase by Bel Kaufman
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May 06, 12

Read in May, 2012

Bel Kaufman, the author of this book will turn 101 this week. She is the grand daughter of the great Yiddish writer Sholem Aleichem. It shows in the book, which is written as a series of letters in the style of Sholem Aleichem (see The Adventures of Menachem Mendel.)
It relates the experiences of a young English teacher in Calvin Coolidge High School, a fictional but typical New York City public school.
I'm sure this book speaks to anyone who has taught high school with its problem kids, little victories and maddening bureaucratic obligations. Even though it was published in 1965, I don't think "Up the Down Stair Case" is dated at all.
There's a story where the teacher, Sylvia Barrett, gets in big trouble because she lets one of her students leave an exam she was proctoring to use the toilet without waiting for a hall proctor to escort him there. The boy is accused of cheating. A big brouhaha ensues. She almost gets fired for letting him go to the bathroom without a hall proctor. Almost
everybody who went to a big public high school has a story like that where bureaucracy trumps common sense.
I buy most of my books from the used book sale shelves at the Evanston, Illinois Public Library. People donate books to the library. The library puts them on a shelf and charges fifty cents a piece. They get a lot of best sellers from decades ago. Up the Down Staircase was on the New York Times Best Seller List for 64 weeks in 1965 and 1966.
In the inside flap of this volume in perfect 1950's public school script is this inscription:
"Oct. 16, 1965
Hi Beautiful,
Even though I can't be with you on this birthday I hope with all my heart, that this will be a very, very, happy occasion!
May God bless you always & Happy Birthday, darling!
Love-
Gary"
I don't know who Beautiful or Gary are, but I will treasure this book as they did for a few more years until somebody donates it back to the Evanston Public Library to be discovered by a reader of another generation. Hopefully by then public high schools will have improved. I tend to doubt it.
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