By John Thompson.
Bel Kaufman’s Up the Down Staircase (1965) is the teachers’ and students’ Catch-22 (1961). She captures the fecklessness of bureaucracies, especially those damaged by a culture of powerlessness. She also illuminates the best single antidote to the situational ethics that dominate dysfunctional education systems – the moral consciousness of children.
During Kaufman’s 15-year high school teaching career in New York City, and in urban districts today, “major issues are submerged by minor ones, catastrophes by absurdities.” As was also explained in Joseph Heller’s masterpiece, real truths are not measurable. But, the more surrealistic the system, the more the persons trapped in it try to seek order by quantifying that which can’t be counted.
A student, Evelyn Lazer, needed to talk with a caring adult but an inane, mandatory faculty meeting took precedent. Evelyn then died of a botched abortion. The school nurse could not have done more for Evelyn than she did when the girl sought help after being beaten by her father. The nurse could only offer the victim a cup of tea.
The nurse was constrained by the rule, “THE SCHOOL NURSE MAY NOT TOUCH WOUNDS, GIVE MEDICATION, REMOVE FOREIGN PARTICLES FROM THE EYE …”
Syl, the rookie teacher based on Kaufman, saw the rule as a metaphor, “Are we, none of us, allowed to touch wounds?”
“Poor Evelyn Lazer,” Syl lamented, she was “lost in bickering.”
This impersonality was not lost on the students. One, who dubbed himself the “Athalete,” sprained his ankle and complained that the nurse merely gave him tea.
Syl illustrates why the first rule of schooling should be, “listen to the kids and they will teach you how to teach them.” She placed a Suggestion Box in her classroom and collected the teenagers’ comments. Their insights dovetailed with those of her wisest colleagues. My favorite came from a shy, “defeated looking” Puerto Rican student, Jose, who blossomed once Syl treated him with respect. Jose said that when a teacher listens to him, “I feel more courage.”
As I learned twenty years ago, the prime rule of schooling actually is that “the feces rolls downhill.” The teenager’s version of that wisdom was expressed by the insightful but troubled Ferone. Although prone to exaggerate, he articulated truths that adults should dare to face, “We’re just dirt to you, just like you’re dirt to the fatheads and whistle-blowers who run this jail and they’re dirt to the swindlers and horn-tooters who run the school system.”
Syl, her colleagues, and students witnessed this dynamic in Dr. Samuel Bester who “started out to be a great teacher but he’s been soured by the trivia-in-triplicate which his administrative duties impose.” A student, “Lazy Mary,” asked “how come Dr. Bester is so nice and different in class than in his office, he’s a good teacher but you’d never know it looking at him.”
The prime corollary of the key school rule is “feed the teachers or they will eat the kids.” “A Cutter,” observed that teachers “try to make us feel lower than themselves, maybe this is because they feel lower than outside people.” “A Bashful Nobody,” was more forgiving, “I accepted many teachers with their faults and tried to concentrate on their Dr. Jekile side.”
However, a “Grateful Student” had an unqualified appraisal of one former teacher “who enjoyed himself and didn’t mind being a teacher. He taught with pride.”
Teachers of my generation were warned, “It is better to beg forgiveness than ask permission.” Syl’s career could have been terminated due to a dilemma that my colleagues and students faced throughout my entire career. It seems to have grown more acute as the uncertainty generated by education’s “culture of compliance” is challenged by the rigid, but predictable, “No Excuses” mentality in high-challenge schools. She trusted Ferone and allowed him to go to the restroom during a test.
Teachers should nurture “creative insubordination.” Too many of today’s reformers, however, see the world in terms of “right” and “wrong.” They don’t seem to understand why trusting emotional relationships with students are so important that they justify such defiance of the rules. But, the student, “Me,” described the transformative effect of a minor interaction. The teacher “just said she’d take my word for it. That gave me a warm feeling inside because it was the first time a teacher took a pupil’s word.”
Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 and Bel Kaufman’s Up the Down Staircase are doubly relevant in today’s era of so-called “accountability.” Now, perhaps even more than ever, the system pressures educators to “teach the subject,” when our real job should be to “teach the student.” As in Kaufman’s time, schools have it backwards and, increasingly, we accept the timorous mentality that the Syllabus is “your Bible.”
If anything, it is more important for today’s teachers to grasp the real meaning of our generation’s ever-present doublespeak. As Kaufman’s “Syl” learned, “’It has come to my attention’ means you’re in trouble.”
And, “’Let it be a challenge to you’ means you’re stuck with it.”
Teachers continue to be stuck with one reductionistic silver bullet after another. When the challenge of pretending that those gimmicks make sense is added to that of educating children, it can become overwhelming. In an era of test-driven reform, we remain incapable of shielding our students from the toxicity that flows down on all of us.
But, perhaps we can emulate Kaufman’s world-weary jest. When teachers are given the modern version of the mandate to “ACHIEVE A GRASP IN TOTO” and “EVALUATE THE WHOLE CHILD IN RELATION TO ALL HIS AREAS IN THE PPP ON EACH PRC,” couldn’t we just laugh it off?
The teacher’s job is to touch students. What if we refused to accept the increase of test scores and other indefensible metrics as our “challenge?” Could Up the Down Staircase help us to acknowledge that Kafkaesque systems, then and now, prompt good people to commit egregious travesties? Could it help us laugh off the timeless absurdities of systems and help us to simply bond with our students and celebrate their gregariousness? What if we accepted the facts expressed by a teacher and a student that school is “where life is” and that “Man is a gregious animal?”