Saturday, May 2, 2015

Bel Kaufman - Up the Down Staircase

When Miss Barrett arrives at Calvin Coolidge High, fresh from earning literature degrees at Hunter College, she can hardly wait to shape young minds. Instead, she encounters broken windows, no supplies, students who would rather be anyplace else, and a stifling bureaucracy that makes her job more difficult at every turn. Narrated through hilarious inter-office memos, students’ notes, and other scraps drawn from the waste basket, Up the Down Staircase stands as the seminal novel of the American public school system, a beleaguered institution perpetually redeemed by teachers who love to teach and students who long to be recognized. 
This ebook features an illustrated biography of Bel Kaufman including photos from the author’s personal collection.

Comment: I saw this story featured in one of those recommendations titles Goodreads suggested after I finished another book. I got interested and after having read a book in Portuguese by a teacher from here who shared little stories about her years of work, I decided this one would also be an interesting view on the theme.

This is Sylvia Barrett's story as a young teacher starting at a New York school and her trials dealing with what her work is supposed to be, what the job really entails, student's issues and the incredible amount of bureaucracy for everything.
The book is a collection of memos, student's compositions, notes exchanged between teachers, Sylvia's letters to her married friend Ella and other means of communication not a linear narrative. Through all this we get to see a glimpse of what school is, how much work it takes, how it affects so many people.

I liked this story, mainly because of two things:
1) there are some serious things the characters have to deal with and, as we are not given the scenes to see but to know about, in a way, it makes it more surprising and dramatic.
2) The sequence of Sylvia's students compositions are too funny to pass.

This story isn't told in the traditional narrative style. It wasn't also the first story I've read in this style either and I've liked the previous ones I've came across. I think the beauty of such style is that whatever comes next must be imaginative, different, always a surprise. The fact that we need to follow the plot while paying attention to details we wouldn't have otherwise also adds up to the charm of this sort of epistolary style.

The theme, of course, is the workings of a public school, how the new teacher deals with her classes, her students who need to be more than just numbers and how any school relationships reflect not only what happens at class but also how the student's home environment affects their behavior. Also important is the teacher's themselves, because their way of teaching an influence students too.
Having been in the school's system myself for 18 years as a student, I can rationally understand both sides. Teachers are one person having to deal with countless students and not always able to help all in the same way. And students have a lot to cover, not always paying attention to that teacher or why his/her classes aren't as optimal as one would think. The system has many flaws and in this book we see how much and why. Although this being a work of fiction, everyone can surely see in it a reflection of one's years in it and how updated it still is today.

In fact, this ebook edition I got has a long introduction where the author herself explains many things, the book, the path it took, the movies, the fame, the idea it gave and, again, how it's still so up to nowadays way of teaching. Many things have changed but it's true that the way things are shapes up students, influences many choices and it's not always easily understood. I especially think it was thought provoking how the system protects a certain kind of student but doesn't have the reach or the needed power to help others.

This story also has a sort of plot that helps the reader to follow Sylvia, the teacher, on how difficult it is to do her work while having to deal with protocols in detriment of actual teaching. How much often unappreciated work isn't recognized by students and put aside by other needs that no one can't understand, like meetings, paper trails and forgotten notes. But still Sylvia tries to reach her students, help them, be a steady presence in heir lives, to offer guidance and support they can't have anywhere else. It's not always easy, Sylvia isn't always successful, but her attempts to be a good teacher, to impress her students are noteworthy and commendable.

I think the introduction should have been a conclusion instead. I read it and it kind of gave me a more detailed idea about the story and some of its content. Not that it gives spoilers about the key /heartfelt moments of the story but it does give an idea. And it's a lengthy introduction so when I really stared I wasn't completely into it, but that changed as I read along.

In the end, this is a great story, still very actual despite being originally from the 60s. Although this depicts an American school, it can be a window to any school because what moves students and teaches is universal.
I still think what could have happened to those students whose personalities we were introduced to in their compositions and words.
As with any book styled this way, the thinking it imposes is precise and heightened. I do recommend it, especially if the theme interests you.
Grade: 8/10

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