Academic Debris Gives Up the Down Staircase Allure

Until Bel Kaufman published Up The Down Staircase, the teacher in popular fiction was either a joke or a beloved martyr to the teaching profession like Miss Bishop and Mr. Chips.

Sylvia Barrett is neither a martyr nor a joke. She’s young, pretty, hard-working, and willing to learn even from her students.

Mustard-yellow paint peeling in stairwell

Up The Down Staircase by Bel Kaufman

New York: Barker Publishing, 1965. 340 pages. 1965 bestseller #2. My grade: B

She is also totally unprepared for the students and the problems she finds at Calvin Coolidge High School.

Up the Down Staircase is not a particularly good novel; the 1967 film version makes the storyline stronger.

The novel compensates for its sketchy plot by a backpack’s worth of artifacts from the academic arena: notes, memos, bits of homework.

At first, Sylvia thinks the administrators are incompetent. She resents being treated as a clog in the system.

Gradually, however, she realizes that the administrators are doing their best in a bureaucracy over which they have no control.

Of course, this being fiction, we know Sylvia will be a wonderful teacher. The only suspense is whether she will survive long enough to decide she wants to stay on at CCHS.

When a student commits suicide at the school, that event makes the minimal impact on Sylvia’s life—which reveals she, too, has become part of the system.

© 2015 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Photo credit: Yellowslide by phreekdog.

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Linda G. Aragoni

I make big ideas simple for learners. In eight sentences, 34 words, I taught teens and adults to write competently. Now I'm writing guides to turn willing volunteers into great nursing home visitors.

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