Bel Kaufman

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Bel Kaufman

Bella Kaufman (May 10, 1911 – July 25, 2014) was an American novelist and teacher.


Up the Down Staircase (1965)[edit]

  • I don't allow anyone to talk to me like that.
    So you're lucky — you're a teacher.
    • Part I, ch. 1 (Sylvia Barrett and Joe Ferone)
  • The clerical work is par for the course. "Keep on file in numerical order" means throw in wastebasket. You'll soon learn the language. "Let it be a challenge to you" means you're stuck with it; "interpersonal relationships" is a fight between kids; "ancillary civic agencies for supportive discipline" means call the cops; "Language Arts Dept." is the English office; "literature based on child's reading level and experiential background" means that's all they've got in the Book Room; "non-academic-minded" is a delinquent; and "It has come to my attention" means you're in trouble.
    • Part I, ch. 2 (Bea Schachter)
  • When I had asked why they were taking English, a boy said: "To help us in real life."
    • Part I, ch. 5 (Sylvia Barrett)
  • The building itself is hostile: cracked plaster, broken windows, splintered doors and carved up desks, gloomy corridors and metal stairways, dingy cafeteria (they can eat sitting down only in 20 minute shifts) and an auditorium which has no windows. It does have murals, however, depicting mute, muscular harvesters, faded and immobile under a mustard sun.
    • Part I, ch. 5 (Sylvia Barrett)
  • During what was presumably my lunch period, Admiral Ass (a Mr. McHabe, who signs himself Adm. Asst.) appeared in my room with Joe Ferone.
    "This boy is on probation," he said. "Did he show up in homeroom this morning?"
    "Yes," I said.
    "Any trouble?" the Admiral asked.
    There we stood, the three of us, taking each other's measure. Ferone was watching through narrowed eyes.
    "No. No trouble," I said.
    • Part I, ch. 7 (Sylvia Barrett)
  • The cardinal sin, strange as it may seem in an institution of learning, is talking. There are others, of course — sins, I mean, and I seem to have committed a good number. Yesterday I was playing my record of Gielgud reading Shakespeare. I had brought my own phonograph to school (no one could find the Requisition Forms for "Audio-Visual Aids" — that's the name for the school record player) and I had succeeded, I thought, in establishing a mood. I mean, I got them to be quiet, when — enter Admiral Ass, in full regalia, epaulettes quivering with indignation. He snapped his fingers for me to stop the phonograph, waited for the turntable to stop turning, and pronounced:
    "There will be a series of three bells rung three times indicating Emergency Shelter Drill. Playing records does not encourage the orderly evacuation of the class."
    • Part II, ch. 9 (Sylvia Barrett)
  • Like most chairmen, he teaches only one class of Seniors; the most experienced teachers are frequently promoted right out of the classroom!
    • Part II, ch. 9 (Sylvia Barrett)
  • Teachers try to make us feel lower than themselves, maybe because this is because they feel lower than outside people. One teacher told me to get out of the room and never come back, which I did.
    • Part II, ch. 10 (Jerry "Cutter" Hyams)
  • You teachers are all alike, dishing out crap and expecting us to swallow it and then give it back to you, nice and neat, with a place in it for the mark to go in. But you're even phonier than the others because you put on this act — being a dame you know how — and you stand there pretending that you give a damn. Who you kidding?
    We're dirt to you, just like you're dirt to the fatheads and whistle-blowers who run this jail, and they're dirt to the swindlers and horn-tooters who run the school system.
    • Part II, ch. 12 (Joe Ferone)
  • In Memory of Those Who Died Waiting for the Bell
    • Part III, ch. 15 (caption of a drawing)
  • The ceiling fell? The ink ran dry? A student dared to smile?
    Of every new disaster
    I prove myself the master
    By sending out more circulars, more circulars to file!
    A missing kid? A kissing kid? A paper on the floor?
    For every major crisis
    One remedy suffices:
    More circulars, more circulars, to put into a drawer!

    A crowded cafeteria?
    A substitute's hysteria?
    A visitor from Syria?
    A missing Book Receipt?

    I merely send out circulars
    To add to other circulars
    To add to other circulars
    Numerical and neat!

    • Part III, ch. 16 (Paul Barringer)
  • Your lesson plan is excellent — except for the Emily Dickinson line: "There is no frigate like a book." The sentiment is lovely, the quotation is apt — only trouble is the word "frigate." Just try to say it in class — and your lesson is over.
    • Part III, ch. 18 (Bea Schacter)
  • Mythology is studied in the school system because most of us come from it.
    • Part III, ch. 19 (unnamed student)
  • How can I take seriously such mimeographed absurdities as "Lateness due to absence," "High under-achiever," and "Polio consent slips"?

    Dear Syl,
    I'll match yours any day with "Please disregard the following."

    • Part IV, ch. 23 (Sylvia Barrett and Bea Schachter)
  • If a teacher wants to know something why doesn't she look it up herself instead of making we students do it? We benefit ourselves more by listening to her, after all she's the teacher!
    • Part IV, ch. 24 (unnamed student)
  • Frances Egan, the school nurse, left her nutrition charts long enough to tell me there was nothing that could have been done. "Evelyn had a rough time with her father," she said. "Once she came in beaten black and blue."
    "What did you do for her?"
    "I gave her a cup of tea."
    "Tea? Why tea, for heaven's sake?"
    "Why? Because I know all about it," she said, shaking with anger. "I know more than anyone here what goes on outside — poverty, disease, dope, degeneracy — yet I'm not supposed to give them even a band-aid. I used to plead, bang on my desk, talk myself hoarse arguing with kids, parents, welfare, administration, social agencies. Nobody really heard me. Now I give them tea. At least, that's something."
    "But you're a nurse," I said helplessly.
    She showed me the Directive from the Board posted on her wall: THE SCHOOL NURSE MAY NOT TOUCH WOUNDS, GIVE MEDICATION, REMOVE FOREIGN PARTICLES FROM THE EYE...
    Are we, none of us, then, allowed to touch wounds? What is the teacher's responsibility? And if it begins at all, where does it end?
    • Part V, ch. 26 (Sylvia Barrett)
  • With me they get a solid foundation, the disciplines of learning. In my class they don't get away with hot air discussions and exchanging their opinions and describing their experiences. What opinions can they have? What have they experienced? What do they know? That's an affront! They learn what I know.
    • Part V, ch. 26 (Mary Lewis)
  • When I tried to tell McHabe that it would have been more valuable to let Ferone keep his appointment with me than to kick him out, he let me have it:
    "When you're in the system as long as I," he said (They all say that!) "you'll realize it isn't understanding they need. I understand them all right — they're no good."
    • Part V, ch. 26 (Sylvia Barrett)
  • A teacher is frequently the only adult in the pupil's environment who treats him with respect.
    • Part VI, ch. 29 (Samuel Bester)
  • Being a female, she spurns him on.
    • Part VI, ch. 30 (Rusty O'Brien)
  • Paul asks how I would have handled a love letter from a student. I don't know — by talking, maybe, by listening. I don't know.
    How sad that we don't hear each other — any of us.
    Major issues are submerged by minor ones; catastrophes by absurdities.
    • Part VIII, ch. 39 (Sylvia Barrett)
  • "Why did you fail me? I didn't do nothing!" The reply, of course, is: "That's just it."
    • Part IX, ch. 42 (Bea Schachter)
  • One of my students had written wistfully of a dream-school that would have "windows with trees in them."
    • Part X, ch. 49 (Sylvia Barrett)
  • My words never reached him; I could almost hear them drop, one by one, like so many pebbles against a closed window.
    • Part X, ch. 51 (Sylvia Barrett)
  • I had used my sense of humor; I had called it proportion, perspective. But perspective is distance.
    • Part X, ch. 51 (Sylvia Barrett)
  • We got this jerky sub. she don't know a thing and she's trying to teach it.
    • Part XI, ch. 54 (Miguel Rios)
  • Teaching here isn't so bad. Once you accept as one of the ineluctable laws of nature that kids will continue to say "Silas Mariner" and "Ancient Marner" and "between you and I" and "mischievious" and that the administration will continue to use phrases like "egregious conduct" and "ethnic background" you can go on from there.
    • Part XI, ch. 57 (Bea Schachter)

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