Bel Kaufman Took Us 'Up The Down Staircase'

Bel Kaufman was a public school teacher who revealed what the New York public schools were really like. She died Friday, in Manhattan, at the age of 103. NPR's Scott Simon has this remembrance.

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Bel Kaufman was a substitute teacher who bounced between public high schools in New York because her Ukrainian accent was considered a little thick. She liked to tell a story about a student who came in late. Welcome back, I said. What happened - did you rob a bank? No, he said, a grocery store. So Bel Kauffman wrote a book that taught the world. She died yesterday in Manhattan at the age of 103. Her 1965 bestseller "Up The Down Staircase" told of a new teacher's first year in a public high school that was tough, gritty and chaotic before school bureaucrats began to say diverse. It was both an alarm bell and a love letter told in a series of notes and memos that range between the ridiculous and the stirring.

"Up The Down Staircase" sold more than 6 million copies - was made into a popular film. The very title has become a metaphor for bureaucratic nonsense. There's a section towards the close of the book when the young teacher despairs she hasn't been able to make a difference in her students' lives. An older colleague tells her, walk through the halls, listen at the classroom doors. In one - a lesson on the nature of Greek tragedy. In another - a drill on who and whom. In another - a hum of voices and toned French conjugations. In another - committee reports on slum clearance. In another - silence - a math test. Whatever the ways stupidity, ineptitude, whatever the problems and frustrations of teachers and pupils, something very exciting is going on in each of the classrooms on each of the floors all at the same time - education is going on. That's how I managed to stand up.

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