In 1964, a New York City high-school teacher published a novel that spent more than a year on the bestseller list. Up the Down Staircase, the book was called, written by a woman named Bel Kaufman. Through a scattering of memos, letters, and diary entries, it told the story of a teacher who begins her first year of teaching with grand hopes and high expectations, only to discover that American education has fallen into an abyss of bad management, bad culture, and bad behavior.
To readers at the time, Up the Down Staircase seemed a classic of its kind. This wasn’t high literature, but it was a readable and clever account of an idealistic young woman’s first encounter with the real world of corruption, failure, and entrenched stupidity. And it was set firmly within the sentimental genre of high-school tale that admits our schools are just as bad as you think they are—but, ah, a dedicated teacher can still make a difference.
The 1967 movie version, starring Sandy Dennis, did much less well than Hollywood expected, disappearing behind the success of yet another teacher’s film that same year: Sidney Poitier’s To Sir, With Love (which ranks with the 1988 movie Stand and Deliver as perhaps the archetype of that ain’t-it-awful-but-ah genre). And with the movie’s lack of success, Up the Down Staircase began to fade.
The phrase Kaufman chose for her title still kicks around in American discourse: an enduring expression of absurd bureaucratic prose, which she lifted from a school memo about reasons for student punishments. But otherwise, Kaufman’s novel has slipped from view—and that’s a shame, since Up the Down Staircase is a better book than many later attempts to talk about the woeful state of American education. It’s a better book, certainly, than The Battle for Room 314, Ed Boland’s new, non-fiction account of a year spent teaching in a New York public high school.
Perhaps the difference is that Kaufman (granddaughter of the Yiddish writer Sholem Aleichem) wrote well, even inspiring movies with her writing. Boland worked the other way around: originally inspired, he says, by movies. While working as an executive at a nonprofit that helps minority students, Boland found himself growing increasingly dissatisfied with his efforts. Why wasn’t he out forming the next generation? Why wasn’t he a saving figure, "one of those teachers that kids really like and listen to and learn from"? Why wasn’t he like Jaime Escalante (played by Edward James Olmos in Stand and Deliver) or LouAnne Johnson (played by Michelle Pfeiffer in Dangerous Minds)? Why wasn’t he a hero?
So, determined "to work on the ‘front lines,’" insisting that he knew how to "turn a kid around," he finished his education degree and went off to teach ninth grade at what he pseudonomizes as "Union Street." (Digging through public-employment records, the New York Post’s Maureen Callahan has identified it as the Henry Street School on Manhattan’s Lower East Side.) "I was ready to change lives as a teacher," Boland writes, but he quickly discovers that the lives he was ready to change weren’t ready for him as a teacher.
His struggles began immediately. As The Battle for Room 314 opens, Boland walks in to begin a morning of teaching history to his freshman class. When he tells the class to sit down and pass around the worksheets he has prepared, two of the boys begin wrestling. A pair of girls start shouting out the words to a song on their iPod. Someone throws a calculator, smashing it against the blackboard. A girl named Chantay stands on her desk, glares down at him, and shouts, "Suck my f—kin’ dick, mister."
It’s mostly downhill from there. Boland’s 30 students ignore him when they aren’t threatening him. He goes to the bathroom to weep when his ninth-graders throw their textbooks out the window. He’s terrified of a student named Kameron, who is finally expelled by the school’s spineless principal—not for the electric sharpener he threw at a teacher’s head, not for his gang colors, not for his shouting, "What up, niggahs?" as he strolls late into class, but for the hammer and switchblade he accidently dropped one morning, a final violation of the no-weapons policy he had repeatedly ignored.
Bad as the school’s situation is, the teacher is worse. Boland actually did his year of teaching all the way back in 2005. It’s hard to believe that he spent more than a decade polishing the book, for The Battle for Room 314 gives the overwhelming impression of an arrogant but fragile man who mistook his self-righteousness for heroism: the author as self-entitled twit. A few students do show some promise, but none see Boland in the adoring light he expected to shine upon his every step through the Union Street School.
And so, he concludes, the students are "monsters," scribbling obscenities about his homosexuality on the blackboard, displaying a premature sexuality that disgusts him, and plodding through the daytime prison-for-children that his school has become. "Their poverty, their ignorance, their arrogance" are unbearable. And bear it, he doesn’t, fleeing after two semesters of the uncontrollable madness.
Boland claims he wrote The Battle for Room 314 to demolish "the myth of the hero teacher." The sledgehammer he takes to that American tale would be a lot more effective, however, if he had any of those heroic traits of myth, apart from the fantasy that led him to try teaching. The book will leave readers suspecting that maybe there are no heroes great enough to save the children in Room 314—but Boland isn’t hero enough to prove the case.
He isn’t even teacher enough to prove his case. The book ends with a reasonable, if well-known, litany of proposals for fixing our schools. A girl accused him of making sexual advances, which forced him to participate in a sham but wearisome investigation, despite the fact that the investigators knew that he was gay—and so, whatever his claims of liberalism, Boland realizes that the teachers’ unions and school bureaucracies have to be reformed.
He also demands more money for school infrastructure, along with the recruitment of better teachers. Parent-teacher meetings convinced him of what everyone in American education knows: Broken families, especially with absent fathers, correlate almost perfectly with academic failure. He decides that all this can be solved simply by ending poverty—but that’s a platitude he has no idea how to carry out, and in the end all his proposals amount to little more than spitting into the wind.
Early in Up the Down Staircase, Bel Kaufman tells the story of an aspiring English teacher in the 1950s, rejected by the New York school board because she couldn’t convince the board’s members of her interpretation of an Edna St. Vincent Millay poem. The incident occurred only a few years before Kaufman came to work at her New York high school, but even by 1964, it seemed a relic of an age long past.
And maybe that’s part of the problem, then and now. Boland never has anything to teach his students, except his self-glorifying belief that he has come to change their lives. Why wouldn’t they refuse his offer? Kaufman still had some idea that there’s a content to teaching, but Boland has none. A confident culture teaches literature and history because literature and history are life-changing. A diffident, fragile culture teaches literature and history because . . . um, well, you see, good jobs need workers who can read.
Bel Kaufman could imagine good teachers forcing their way against the currents of decline in American education: She could picture a way to climb up the down staircase. But after a year in a New York school, all Ed Boland can feel is the pull of cultural collapse. Not up, but down—down the down staircase.