Bel Kaufman dies at 103

Bel Kaufman, author of the classic 1966 novel Up the Down Staircase, died on Friday at the age of 103.

“Largely epistolary in structure, Up the Down Staircase is organized as a series of dispatches from the front as it follows Sylvia through her first year at Calvin Coolidge High, a fictitious yet all-too-real New York public school,” writes the New York Times.

Ms. Kaufman at home in 2011 when she was 100. Credit: Chester Higgins Jr./New York Times Credit: Chester Higgins Jr./New York Times

Kaufman’s family fled the Russian Revolution when she was 12 and came to New York City. She was placed in a first-grade class. Later, she was denied a teaching license for several years because of her slight Russian accent.

Her book is filled with Kafkaesque memos from administrators:

“Dear Sir or Madam,” one directive reads. “In reply to your request for resignation, please be advised that yours was filled out improperly.” Others range over subjects like “Lateness due to absence” and “Polio Consent slips.”

Amid the laughter, Ms. Kaufman’s book explored deeply serious issues, from classrooms with chronically broken windows and too few chairs to teenage pregnancy, trouble with the law and a student’s attempted suicide.

. . . “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.’ ”

Kaufman was the granddaughter of the great Yiddish writer Sholem Aleichem, reports the Forward.  In addition to her Russian accent, the teacher examination board said she’d misinterpreted a sonnet by Edna St. Vincent Millay. Kaufman “had the chutzpah to send the essay to Millay herself, who replied approvingly, much to the dismay of the Board of Education examiners. While Kaufman was finally allowed to teach, thenceforth only dead poets were included on future certification exams.”

That anecdote is in the book.

After her book became a bestseller and then a movie, Kaufman advocated for a “teachers bill of rights” which would guarantee a “right to respect, to a decent and safe classroom, to a salary commensurate with worth,” reports the Forward.

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