Young, well-educated, and good-looking Sylvia Barrett is a first-year English teacher at Calvin Coolidge High, an underfunded inner city public school. She hopes to impart her love of literature on her students but is hampered by her inexperience, the students’ indifference, and the bewildering bureaucracy imposed on her by the administration. Intending to share some words of wisdom with her class on the first day, she instead finds herself unable to so much as get through taking attendance before the dismissal bell rings.
Sylvia perseveres with the help of an experienced colleague named Bea and a brilliant department head, but she is frustrated by the lack of supplies and support. There aren’t enough desks for all of her students to sit at and her pleas to have a broken window fixed go unanswered. Many of her students find school pointless and English class especially so. Some of them are constantly on the verge of dropping out. Others rarely show up and are uncooperative when they do. Sylvia makes headway with some students and fails others in a frustrating, turbulent year.
Kaufman neatly reinforces the school system’s maddening love of paperwork by presenting the novel as a collection of collected papers. Kaufman’s Sylvia writes inter-school memos to her mentor Bea and to Paul, an unpublished poet who pursues her romantically. She gets countless memos from her department head, the principal, the school nurse, the guidance counselor, and the Draconian head of discipline who seems to take an instant dislike to her. Her students leave notes for her in a suggestion box which are riddled with misspellings and grammatical errors and tend to express the view that the books they are reading in class are “stupid.”
The main drama of the plot unfolds in Sylvia’s letters to a friend from college who has settled down with a husband and baby. In these, she pours out her frustrations and confesses to doubts about her effectiveness as an educator. She also toys with the idea of accepting a job offer from a fancy private school where she believes the students might give Chaucer more of a chance.
Will Sylvia give in to temptation and take what even she feels is the easy way out? Or will the tiny victories of life at Coolidge High, like hearing a shy girl say you’ve made her want to become a teacher, convince her to stay?
A moving, frequently hilarious gimlet-eyed look at the profession, Up the Down Staircase is an ode to teaching and those who dedicate their lives to it.