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Bel Kaufman Took Us 'Up The Down Staircase'

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. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Simon
Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.