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July 27, 2014 5:55 AM   Subscribe

Originally published in 1962 as a short story in the Saturday Review, under the title "From a Teacher’s Wastebasket", Up the Down Staircase stands as the seminal novel of the American public school system. Its author, Bel Kaufman, died this week at age 103. Turned into a movie in 1967, the book and its author have an impact on teachers decades on.
posted by wheek wheek wheek (15 comments total) 14 users marked this as a favorite

Up the Down Staircase was very popular with my mom's crowd in Russia -- Bel Kaufman was a Russian-speaking Jew -- and my grandparents were all fond of it as well. My mom stumbled on an English-language copy at a family friend 's place and borrowed it for me.

I was going to public high school in Brooklyn at the time and I think that novel was the first portrayal of school as I recognized it. As opposed to, of course, your standard sitcom/John Hughes suburban high school which did not at all resemble or reflect my experiences. It also bridged the otherwise nearly impassable generational and cultural divide between me and the people who raised me. And on top of all of that it was a funny, emotionally effecting, well-written, unconventional novel unlike anything I had read before. I'm not going to say it's a favorite novel, but few had as big a personal impact on me in my formative years.
posted by griphus at 6:36 AM on July 27, 2014 [5 favorites]

Interesting bit of trivia in the obit: "Her mother, Lala Rabinowitz Kaufman, was the eldest daughter of Sholem Aleichem, whose well-loved stories of shtetl life were the basis of the Broadway musical “Fiddler on the Roof” (very recently previously).

I remember going to see a high school production of Up the Down Staircase with my family--I was probably 9 or 10 years old? I remember enjoying it immensely at the time--I think the edginess and challenging of the underpinnings of authority of it appealed to me as a kid. It didn't occur to me at the time to wonder what my dad thought of it--a former teacher and the then-superintendent of schools for our district. I do know that there's nothing like an administrator to get frustrated with the occasionally senseless workings of administration.
posted by drlith at 6:41 AM on July 27, 2014 [1 favorite]

We did a production of the play when I was in high school! I remember it being a great play for high schoolers to perform. Lots of fun characters.

posted by lunasol at 7:00 AM on July 27, 2014

Good grief, I first read that so long ago, I never would have though Ms. Kaufman was still with us.

Thanks for the memories, and I'll dig out my copy to reread again!
posted by easily confused at 7:04 AM on July 27, 2014 [1 favorite]

Heard this on NPR yesterday and remembered reading this book many, many times. Then I realized I cannot remember a single thing about it.
posted by Sweetie Darling at 7:21 AM on July 27, 2014

I found this book in my grandmother's bookcase in the 1980s and I loved it. I think I reread it every summer I came to visit. I suspect it is the impetus of my fondness for works that use the conceit of showing you written artifacts of life and allowing the reader to fill in the emotional/reactive blanks. It's a difficult style to do well - to provide clear, strong characterizations and structure, to guide the reaction, to not be cute or coy or lazy. Goodness knows I've seen many poor attempts at the style.

posted by julen at 7:27 AM on July 27, 2014 [2 favorites]

posted by How the runs scored at 7:40 AM on July 27, 2014

Oh dear. I love this book, read it many times as a teenager and bought a signed first edition many years ago just because. Thanks for introducing me to the poetry of Edna St Vincent Millay, Bel!

Sadly, I wish the petty bureaucracy the book depicts was still the worst thing facing the school system now.

posted by goo at 7:47 AM on July 27, 2014 [1 favorite]

> I'm not going to say it's a favorite novel, but few had as big a personal impact on me in my formative years.

Same here. I loved that book when I was in school, and when I reread it years later as an adult I was surprised to find I still loved it. Good for Ms. Kaufman for fulfilling the injunction "You should live to be a hundred," with a few years added on for good writing! (Her essay in Odessa Memories is excellent, as is the whole book, which has gorgeous photographs; unfortunately, I see it's gotten ridiculously expensive.)

posted by languagehat at 8:48 AM on July 27, 2014 [2 favorites]

I have a visceral, positive, reaction to the shape and color of the letters on the cover. My sister was the one who 'adopted' the book, taking it from my parents' book shelves and keeping it in her bedroom. I got her another copy two years ago for her birthday; the old copy had been hugged to death.

> Then I realized I cannot remember a single thing about it.

Me too. Then I checked the original article, read the line "Dear Sylvia—Some one has swiped mine. There's a run on window-poles today. And on pole-bearers!" and started to remember the whole window-pole subplot. I'm betting a complete re-read would have lots of those "Oh, right!" moments.
posted by benito.strauss at 9:22 AM on July 27, 2014 [1 favorite]

I was going to a public elementary school in Manhattan when that book came out and I was amazed by it. I think the short spurts of writing made it easy enough for me to engage with, and I've been fascinated by it ever since. I always pictured the teacher in the book as my teacher (who I loved).

Somehow it makes me happy to know she lived so long.
posted by maggiemaggie at 9:27 AM on July 27, 2014 [1 favorite]

posted by Melismata at 11:23 AM on July 27, 2014

posted by LobsterMitten at 11:51 AM on July 27, 2014

"Let it be a challenge to you . . . " meaning "You're stuck with it," still echoes decades after I read it, especially after being a teacher for the last 22 years.

Loved that book.
posted by Peach at 8:27 AM on July 28, 2014 [1 favorite]

posted by dlugoczaj at 8:54 AM on July 28, 2014

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