BOOK REVIEW: Up the Down Staircase by Bel Kaufman

Up the Down StaircaseUp the Down Staircase by Bel Kaufman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This is a humorous novel about a rookie teacher’s first year in a New York City public school with all the frustrations and victories that experience entails. It’s an epistolary novel – meaning it’s conveyed through a series of documents. Some of the humor is of a “kids say the darndest things” nature – though these are high school students, so the humor isn’t so much born of naiveté as it is a combination of teenage snarkiness and a maddening ignorance of concepts that students should have grasped by that age (i.e. laugh so you don’t cry style humor.) The humor from kids is largely conveyed by students’ comments in the teacher’s comment box as well as via homework assignments.

There’s a second kind of humor in the form of bureaucratic absurdism. Bureaucratic wrangling and lack of resources cause most of the protagonist’s frustrations. This humor is largely conveyed through memos – some school-wide and some specifically to the protagonist, Sylvia Barrett. Barrett also commiserates with her co-workers, and we see some of her frustration playing out through the post-it note equivalent of water-cooler conversations.

The epistolary form offers a challenging format for both character development and story presentation. However, the novel is strong on character development. It achieves this in large part by mixing long-form letters to a close friend with the short memos and comment box entries. The reader gets to see events unfold and responses by way of different documents. The longer letters give us some depth of feeling. There is even a point where Barrett is being swamped by correspondence and we hear nothing back from her, and in this we can feel the degree to which she is overwhelmed.

The book isn’t story-centric. However, there is a narrative arc that revolves around the question of whether Barrett will stay on at the public high school or move on to teach at a liberal arts college. She is torn because she feels she can do good at the public high school and that would be satisfying, but at the same time she is bureaucratically frustrated and demoralized by perceived failures. There are dramatic events here and there to elevate the tension from the run-of-the-mill school events, but not so much that the book ever moves away from feeling like the real experience of a rookie teacher.

The book uses drawings here and there, usually presented as student doodles, to add to the humor.

I enjoyed this book, finding it to be both humorous and illuminating. I would highly recommend it for those interested in the challenges of secondary education or who can appreciate the [bittersweet] humor of it.

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