The Watcher Cat

The Watcher Cat

Saturday, July 26, 2014

My World With Bel Kaufman

I was saddened to see that Bel Kaufman died yesterday, aged 103.

Now, granted, 103 is a great age to attain, and somewhat mutes the mourning, but the fact is that there are some authors who touch you at just the right time and place, and no matter how long it's been since their last book, no matter how old they are when they die--it'll be a wrench. (I'm gonna be a wreck when--and may that day be far off!--the still active Herman Wouk is gathered to his fathers. And let me just note in passing that last year's The Lawgiver is a fine example of Wouk in "light" mode; not as good as City Boy, but with that novel's deftness, warmth and humor.)

But Bel Kaufman.

So, she wrote one masterpiece, Up the Down Staircase (1965), published the year before I was born, describing the first year on the job of an idealistic young school teacher, and made that tumultuous, frustrating, bureaucratically insane year into art. The book is funny as hell at points, wry, dark and occasionally verges into Joseph Heller territory.

I read it in the school library (brave choice, library staff!) at the lousy public junior high school at which I attended seventh grade, and, as a smart-mouthed nerd, I suffered for my art. Up the Down Staircase reassured me that my experience was not unique, at the same time it gave me enough distance to laugh at the sheer weirdness around me. So, when I saw an Eighth-grade girl's box of cigarettes fall out of her shirt pocket, in front of the Assistant Principal, a kindly avuncular, completely detached sort, and he stooped down, picked them up and returned them to her--well, "Kaufman!" I would think, and smile. When, on the bus home,a student fired a roman candle at the back of the driver's head (to be fair, one of the bullies had the decency to whisper to me, "Duck!"), again, I would ask myself how Kaufman would portray the incident, and how Miss Barrett would cope with the offenders. (I ducked, and said nothing.)

As to Kaufman herself:
For several years until she got her regular license, Ms. Kaufman was relegated to substitute teaching in a string of New York City high schools, any one of which could have been Calvin Coolidge.

“One morning a boy came to class three months late,” Ms. Kaufman wrote in 1991, in her introduction to a new edition of “Up the Down Staircase.” “I greeted him with a feeble joke: ‘Welcome back! What happened? Did you rob a bank?’ ‘No,’ he said. ‘A grocery store.’”

“Up the Down Staircase” came along, Ms. Kaufman said afterward, at a low point in her life. She was teaching, selling the occasional short story to magazines and “living alone in a tiny apartment with very little money or hope for the future,” as she wrote in 1991. (In the 1940s, in order to sell a story to Esquire, which took a dim view of submissions by women, she began signing her work with the more androgynous first name Bel.)


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.

Rest in peace--and thanks, Teach.

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