Saturday, July 26, 2014

Bel Kaufman (1911–2014)

[From Up the Down Staircase (1965).]

From the New York Times obituary:

Over the years, Ms. Kaufman was often asked whether the memorandums in Up the Down Staircase were real. Though they were inane enough to look real, she explained, in fact, she had invented most of them. (Ms. Kaufman did include a few actual New York City Board of Education memos, but had to tone them down to make them credible.)

The best indication of Ms. Kaufman’s skill at dead-on bureaucratic mimicry came from one of her former schools. After Up the Down Staircase was published, she wrote, an assistant principal there began annotating his official directives with a stern red-penciled admonition.

I love Up the Down Staircase. The memorandum above comes from my copy of the 1965 hardcover (a library book-sale find). As Sylvia Barrett’s older colleague Bea Schachter explains, Administrative Assistant McHabe is “in charge of Discipline and Supplies.” How Foucauldian.

Up the Down Staircase captures like no other novel the inanities of educational institutions — “the gobbledygook, the pedagese, and the paper miles of words,” as Miss Barrett calls them in a letter — and the always present possibility, despite all the nonsense, of genuine teaching and learning. This novel offers strong reassurance to any exasperated teacher: you’re not crazy, and you’re not alone.

Here’s a 2011 Times article about Bel Kaufman.

comments: 2

Geo-B said...

And, an additional amazing detail is that Bel Kaufman was the grand-daughter of and remembered Sholem Aleichem.

JuliaR said...

I remember loving the book when I read it as a high school student in the early '70s. I only read it once, so I don't remember any of it to quote except for one part. When she was handing out papers, she said to her class, "I'm passing out..." and the class interrupted with a chorus of, "She's passing out! Give her air! Get the doctor!"

I just read her Wikipedia page. Such an interesting life!