Checking In With The Imaginary Summer Book Club: Up The Down Staircase By Bel Kaufman

(Click here for information on the 2017 edition of Molly’s Imaginary Summer Book Club Featuring Classics of Women’s Literature. As all of the four selected titles have filmed adaptations, we will be looking at the movie versions as we go along. This month, the June selection, Bel Kaufman’s Up The Down Staircase.)

It’s only fair to state at the outset that I come to Up The Down Staircase with a bias- like Bel Kaufman, I am a Hunter College alumnae who teaches in the New York City school system, so I feel I can answer with authority the question of the hour: how much, exactly, have things changed in the last 50 years?

Not. Much.

Right down to the draconian dictates on the raising and lowering of classroom shades.

Ok, I exaggerate, but slightly. In 2017, there may also be fewer H-Bomb drills than in 1964.

In Kaufman’s introduction to 1991 edition she outlines the origins of the book and her own career as a high school English teacher, first in the gray area of a “Per Diem sub” when the Board of Education repeatedly flunks her on the oral portion of the licensing exam because, as the child of Russian immigrants, she had practiced too well- apparently they feared she would make her students’ pronunciation too affected.

This introductory passage is fascinating (and she gets to indulge in some well-earned bragging about the universality of the story and massive success in translation), it’s interesting that she seems to think that the state of public education is much changed for the worse, focusing on the police presence, metal detectors in the halls and the chancellor’s visit to investigate a case of a “child molester”.

But the big stuff packs a gut-punch of recognition: the petty administrators who bully teachers because they can, the memos (now disseminated via e-mail) that may begin “please disregard the following…” the success and failures, and of course, the students who remain pretty much “alright”.

The novel has a fairly unusual structure, presented as a series of memos, notes, letters, suggestion box cards and notebook pages, following the first semester in the life of Sylvia Barrett, a rookie teacher who has been hired by the (fictional) Calvin Coolidge high school.

Over the course of four months, Sylvia has share of run-ins with the administration, particularly in the form of JJ McHabe, the Administrative Assistant, who sends endless memos dictating proper procedures for requisition of non-existent supplies; she is taken under the wing of Bea Schachter, a veteran teacher who becomes her mentor and confidant; she has sort-of romance with the English department’s lothario, Paul Barringer, who woos her with poetry and his aspirations of becoming a Serious Writer; and has a few successes and many, many failures with her students, including a girl who dies after a self-induced abortion, another who attempts suicide after her crush on Mr. Barringer is callously rebuffed, an attempted seduction by her most brilliant (and delinquent) student.

(Question, because I know we all want to go there: is the said attempted seduction of the romantic, sexual or intellectual kind?  Discuss!)

The last incident (and said student’s subsequent dropping-out) leaves Sylvia so rattled that she accepts a position at a private college for the spring semester, having been plied with tree-lined campuses, reasonable teacher-student ratios and the promise of a Chaucer seminar of her very own.

A farcical perfect-storm of misdirected paperwork, a student theatrical production that leaves her with a broken foot, and finally a flurry of Christmas Cards from students that she had reached without even realizing it (sorry, there is something in my EYYYYYYEEEEE….) leaves her stuck at Calvin Coolidge, for better or worse for herself, but definitely for better for her students.

I hadn’t seen the film adaptation, which appeared in theaters three years following the publication of the book. Frankly, I was expecting it to be equal parts corny and silly. Instead, it is both faithful to the book and… gritty. The botched-abortion subplot disappears, and Miss Barrett seems to only have one overstuffed classroom to deal with, but the New York City locations (it was shot during the summer at two public high schools, one in East Harlem and one on the Upper West Side) and hand-held camera work give the film a surprising immediacy.

It is also helped tremendously by casting of unknowns and amateurs as the student body: mostly lumpy, sullen, and uncomfortable-looking, this might be the realest batch of teenagers ever delivered on-screen.

As far as changes in the adaptation, the most notable is the ending, which is necessarily streamlined. Mr. Barringer (played by Patrick Bedford as sort of an off-brand James Mason) is something more of a heel than in the book, where he is played mostly for laughs; in the book you don’t have to see poor Alice Blake’s humiliation as he ruthlessly corrects the spelling and grammar of her love note. Also notable in the cast are small roles for Jean Stapleton (as Sadie Finch) and Sorrell Brook (The Dukes of Hazzard’s Boss Hogg, unrecognizable as the stuffy head of the English department)

Availability: Happily, both book and film remain in print.

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Promised Kiss (First Love From Silhouette #14) By Veronica Ladd

All her friends think Roger is weird, but Karen knows better…

Background: 236 First Love titles were published between 1981 and 1987 by Silhouette, “AMERICA’S publisher of Contemporary Romance” (distinguishing itself from its main competitor, the Canadian-based Harlequin, which would fold Silhouette into its own operations in 2012).  I have commented in the past that I thought that First Love titles compared unfavorably with the similar Wildfire, Sweet Dreams and Caprice YA Romances…

But I think I actually have to take all of that back. While Silhouette certainly released its share of dogs (talking or otherwise), I find myself surprised more often than not by the quality of writing. Or at least willing to suspend my disbelief as long as they keep the titles with bird-crazed meddling neighbors coming.

The Plot: While this one includes neither talking dogs nor perilous bird sanctuaries, it turns out to be a pretty serious and angst-filled title, as 16 year old Karen is pushed by her bitter divorced mom and older sister into following in their footsteps and campaigning for the title of Harvest Queen, in the town of Wilks, Wilks County, Kansas. Continue reading

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Magazine Madness and/or Mania: Co-Ed, May 1963

Published by Scholastic between 1959 and 1985, Co-Ed’s somewhat confusing tagline was “The High School Magazine For Homemakers and Career Girls”, which covers pretty much every group of young women except collegiate co-eds. Continue reading

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Robin West: Nurse’s Aide By Louise Christopher

The pretty nurse’s aide becomes involved in the strange life of a beautiful debutante…

It’s easy to see why nurse books were so popular amongst young, female readers of the 20th century: nurses got to actually do things: live away from home to train, solve mysteries, fight in a World War (or II), romance “groovey interns”, escape from Nightmare Islands, minister to Hootenannies… in fact, just go over to the Vintage Nurse Romance Novels website for the rest of the afternoon.

The age of the vintage Nurse Romance has mostly passed: Harlequin still publishes “medical” category romances, although I rarely see them for sale, and General Hospital is currently trudging into its 55th year on TV, but nursing seems to have lost some of its glamour for the kids these days.

I went searching to see if this was the beginning of a series, but info was difficult to turn up. “Louise Christopher” is a pen name for romance writer Arlene Hall, who has a number of “nurse” romances on her CV, but apparently Robin West only rated one follow-up: Robin West: Freshman Nurse in 1964.

The Plot: And frankly, I’m surprised Dell even bothered, since Robin West is the most fatuous heroine I’ve encountered since Polly French. Continue reading

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Prank By Kathryn Lasky

How can the words of the past give Birdie hope for the future?

Well, this another one where the cover-copy barely matches the actual content of the book: it’s sold to readers as being about a high school student who learns about the horrors of the Holocaust after her brother is implicated the vandalism of a local synagogue…

The Plot: …but, whoa, there is a whole lot more going on.

High school Junior Brigid (Birdie) Flynn is a rapidly lapsing Irish-Catholic living with her nightmare family in a housing project in East Boston. Her barely-literate parents are frequently physically abusive toward Birdie and her brother (who was flunking out of school even before he got picked up by the cops) and her oldest sister regularly returns home with her young daughter to escape from her own abusive husband, whom she was forced to marry after he knocked her up. Continue reading

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Announcing the 2017 Edition of Molly’s Imaginary Summer Book Club

Full name: Molly’s Imaginary Summer Book Club Featuring Classics of Women’s Literature Defined As Books Authored By, About or Widely Read By Women in the 20th Century, because I should maybe read something intended for actual adults occasionally.

This year’s titles are…

Up the Down Staircase By Bel Kaufman Rookie teacher navigates the bureaucracy of the New York City school system in the mid-1960s. Will things stay the same the more they change? WILL THEY? Plus movie.

Haywire By Brooke Hayward Brooke Hayward is the daughter of theatrical producer Leland Hayward and actress Margaret Sullavan; her 1977 memoir relates her family’s history of mental illness and suicides. The 1980 made-for-TV movie stars Lee Remick as  Sullavan and Jason Robards as Leland Hayward.

The Fuzzy Pink Nightgown By Sylvia Tate …And now for a lighter look at Hollywood, Sylvia Tate’s long-lost satire about a megalomaniacal starlet whose kidnapping is mistaken for a publicity stunt (or is it?).  An uncharacteristically blonde Jane Russell stars in the 1957 movie, which is somehow not a feminist film-theory staple.

The Haunting of Hill House By Shirley Jackson And just in time for Halloween (or possibly, Thanksgiving) Shirley Jackson’s classic ghost story-slash-subtext fest. With the movie, of course.

The Imaginary Summer Book Club FAQ can be found here. 

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Steffie Can’t Come Out To Play By Fran Arrick

To meet a man like Favor on her very first day in New York City…

Runaway teen stories if this era can be numbingly repetitive- when 14 year old Stephanie Rudd explains that’s she ditching her terrible family and terrible mill town of Clairton, Pennsylvania, to grab her chance at being discovered as a fashion model in New York City, you know exactly where this one is going, right down to what block she’ll be working as a prostitute in no time flat.

The Plot: The catalyst for Steffie’s leaving is the return home of her 19 year old married sister, Anita, put out of the house by her husband when she becomes pregnant. Already the primary caretaker for her much younger brother, Danny, Anita’s difficult pregnancy is just one more burden for Steffie to shoulder. Continue reading

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