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

  1. Julie says:

    I read the book as a teenager, and many times since, but still am unclear about the Sylvia/Joe encounter. It’s so ambiguous in the book and I’d love to hear some possible theories about it! The movie spells things out, though, and since Kaufman never refuted anything about the scene I wonder if that’s what she was trying to portray?

    • mondomolly says:

      It is so ambiguous in the book! I personally think that it’s an emotional connection in the book- the fates of so many of the students in the book are so heartbreaking, including Joe, who is never seen again.

  2. Shawn Cullen says:

    The movie is surprising gritty. I think it benefited greatly from the casting of unknowns as the kids (Kaufman mentions in her intro that none of them ever went very far, acting career wise), and ordinary looking, mostly character actors as the teachers. Sandy Dennis (as Sylvia) brings a lot of belivability to the role. She was a very mannered actress, easy to imitate even when she was young, but her style works here and adds to the general big city quirkiness. (I looked Dennis up and was shocked to learn she died at age 54). The film of “To Sir With Love” came out the same year and rather overshadowed “Up the Down Staircase”. It’s easy to see why. “Sir” is smaller scaled and more focused on its leading man (Sidney Portier), plus the kids in it are more glamorous, it has that British charm thing going for it (even in the slum setting) and that theme song! (Inescapable on the radio back in the day). I read the book of “To Sir” years back. I don’t remember it too clearly, but it’s more of a straightforward memoir and it’s certainly lacking the humor and irony of Kaufman’s book (Portier’s character is more narcissistic and inflexible in the book).

    I’d like to award you a whole bunch of bonus points for: “played by Patrick Bedford as sort of an off-brand James Mason”. Touche!

    • mondomolly says:

      LOL thanks!

      The teenage non-actors were so good- I especially like Carmelita/Carole, it’s a small part, but she gives it a completely believable level of self-assurance for a high schooler.

      So admission: I have never actually seen To Sir with Love. I guess I need to get on that.

      • Shawn Cullen says:

        You should try to see “To Sir With Love”. It’s such a Swinging ’60s period piece without being ridiculous. And the supporting cast of British actors are very good. It’s one of those movies you turn on and think “I’ll just watch this to that good scene…” and “Oh, wait, I love that part that’s coming up..”. It’s no cinematic masterpiece but it is entertaining and thoughtful.

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