Yesterday I accidently got into a disagreement with a bookstore consultant. A woman by the children’s books was asking for a recommendation for her sixth-grader—she wanted a good book about school for him. The consultant handed her Scarecrow by Vladimir Zheleznikov [a novel about a girl who is bullied at school. The book was translated into English by Antonina W. Bouis and published in 1999]. I couldn’t help myself and blurted out that the boy would probably prefer Gary Schmidt’s Okay for Now or The Wednesday Wars. After all, schools these days are a lot more like the ones in Schmidt’s books. It was only later in the day that I really gave it more thought and realized that I hadn’t been wrong. Our modern Russian school is a lot more like an American school in the 1960s than a Soviet school in the 70s. Another case for that argument is Bel Kaufman’s Up the Down Staircase [most recent English edition: Scribe UK, 2020. ISBN 9781912854615].
A big school is like a huge train station: loud, bustling, and scrappy, impossible to understand for those outside it, but familiar and clear for those inside its walls—those who know the shortcut to the cafeteria, or how to dash past the school guards if your outfit isn’t up to dresscode, or how to sneak up into the attic in the break between classes.
After graduating from college, Miss Sylvia Barrett finds herself working in just such a school. College graduates probably imagine that they’ll be working in conditions described in academic articles. Doctors see themselves surrounded by the latest diagnostic equipment, lawyers picture themselves defending human rights, engineers fantasize about new technologies. But a young specialist’s first days on the job are often a reality check. Sylvia Barrett dreamed of introducing her students to the worlds of Shakespeare and Chaucer, but instead she’s forced to spend her time filling out endless forms, demanding repairs for a broken window, and dealing with rudeness from students. Will she ever be able to see their faces, recognize each individual? Will she manage to find common ground with the other teachers or will she be pushed out, like the 80% of the young teachers who end up leaving the school? Sometimes she feels like she’s running up stairs that only lead down, like she’s swimming against the tide carrying her ever further from her goals. Her students, meanwhile, feel just the same, confronted daily with their busy parents’ indifference, classmates’ problems, and disinterested teachers that only pretend to mean well.
Bel Kaufman’s book consists of notes students throw in the Suggestion Box (Sylvia Barrett’s idea), fragments of school circulars, the teachers’ correspondence on the Intraschool Communication system during lessons, and Miss Barrett’s letters to a college friend who is now married and raising her own child. Those letters are like a cry for help from a sinking ship.
When each classroom has fifty students, can you really blame a teacher for not finding the time to help a struggling student? Who’s to blame when a girl who doesn’t find support when she needs it decides to get an illegal abortion and dies? What to do about an infatuated student who falls in love with her teacher: correct the grammar in her muddled love letter or assure her that her feelings will pass with time, like chickenpox? How do you avoid hurting a soul that opens up to you? And should students open up to teachers at all—after all, teachers aren’t priests in a confessional. What’s the proper distance between a teacher and a student, when both sides are constantly in danger of violating it? The young teacher looks for answers to all these questions, trying to understand what her students expect from her, and why each of her colleagues are there.
There are thirty-three students in my homeroom class and about as many in every group in our grade. We take tests because it’s the only way to check to see if we’ve understood the material covered in class. It’s impossible to ask each student individually, just as it’s impossible to grade over a hundred essays or any other open-ended writing assignments. But will tests teach us to think for ourselves? How do you teach math in a class where one student has already mastered trigonometry on his own, and another has completely forgotten the multiplication tables?
It’s funny to read the school circulars in Bel Kaufman’s book. But have we come all that far when our own system has plenty of decisions that haven’t been very well thought-out? This year our school suddenly made a second foreign language a requirement. All September we studied without textbooks or any learning resources, learning by ear, just like Sylvia Barrett’s class. Current education standards require schools to offer extracurricular activities. Every student has to attend at least two clubs a week at the school or bring in a note if they’re doing extracurriculars elsewhere. But how do you force a child to do an activity when he’s not at all interested? How can you force a modern teenager to draw, sing, or play lacrosse?
Just like American school kids from the 60s, we’re proud of our Ds and we’re not afraid to have our parents called in to speak to the principal. Many of my classmates say they’ll only study the subjects they need to get into the colleges they want. Barely scraping by with a C is fine for the rest. But like our American counterparts, we’re curious about how teachers live. Before the start of the school year my friend and I always check out the social media pages of any new teachers we’ll have. Bel Kaufman’s book opens up the door to the teachers’ lounge, the only room in the school that’s off-limits for us. When I read Up the Down Staircase, I tried to put myself in the teachers’ shoes and for the first time I thought about why they come into class, what each of them wants—for us to memorize names and dates, learn to think and analyze, or manage our struggles? What do teachers want to give me, and what do they want from me in return?
Translated from the Russian by Alisa Cherkasova
Book cover image: scribepublications.co.uk
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