I guess I was waiting for her death to unburden myself of some long held grievances against Bel Kaufman, my 9th grade teacher at Taft High School in The Bronx, but it now looks like she’ll outlive me, so I will just proceed with this testament as if it were a deathbed confession. Only it’s not a confession but an attack before the encomiums and hagiographies are published to accompany the inevitable hosannas following her death. After all, we’re told never to speak ill of the dead, so I guess I’ll have to rush this. It won’t take me too long because this has been cooking on my back burner for some years. Many years.
I believe I was a student at Taft High School in the years 1961/2. I know I was definitely at DeWitt Clinton in 1963 because I was on the A/V squad in the Vice Principal’s office when Kennedy was assassinated. 60/61 I was at PS 73, presumably in the 8th grade because that year I went to the ballgames at Yankee Stadium, which I could see from my seat, including the 1960 World Series and saw (actually touched) Marilyn Monroe and Joe DiMaggio. 64/65 I spent at The Roosevelt School in Stamford, Connecticut. I spent maybe two months at a weird school in Plymouth, Massachusetts, in early ’64, during the first Ali-Liston fight. But I digress. Then again, maybe it was 62/63. Well, not important.
Anyway, I “had” (as we used to say) Miss Kaufman as a homeroom and an English teacher. I was a freshman in High School, sort of the “big time”, as was each step on the school ladder- grade school, Junior High (now called middle school) and then High School. High School was the big boys school now. Gone were those anti-Semitic old Irish biddies from grade school, and, I guess, the habit of teaching nursery rhyme like verities in what was now the post-Sputnik world. High School had after school activities that promised to open the worlds of civil rights, world peace and team sports. As for the teaching, it seemed about the same as Junior High.
I was starting college in 1965 when Miss Kaufman published her book, Up The Down Staircase. I read the reviews, which were glowing, and realized this was the same Miss Kaufman as back at Taft. I bought and read the hardcover. I really don’t remember too much about the book, having read it so very long ago. It seemed to be mostly about the cynicism of the teachers, the apathy of the students, and above all, the criminal indifference of the bureaucrat’s of the city’s Board of Education. It was very popular, spending 64 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list. It’s been translated into 16 languages. This was when I found out that Miss Kaufman was the granddaughter of Sholem Aleichem, who I’d heard of, butwho’s work I wasn’t familiar with, but who had supplied the “book” for the Broadway musical Fiddler On The Roof.
I had not yet begun to distrust fiction yet. That would begin when I read Chesterton. I read a couple of Chesterton books, in, of all places, Goa, in 1968. I really admired the humanism of Father Brown as played by Alec Guinness in the movie. So imagine my surprise when reading the short stories to realize Chesterton was a village bigot, ready to deal out guilt and innocence in his stories according to the religion, orthodoxy, philosophy, etc., of his characters. I remember in one story Father Brown is able to identify the murderer because the man had a tattoo on his wrist of a dragon eating his own tail in a circle. Men who believe in such philosophies are inevitably wicked, says Father Brown, and therefore the murderer. Atheists are always the murderers. I’m always amazed at the number of writers who cite Chesterton as a major influence on them. I guess Chesterton must have been some sort of Cliff Notes introduction on how the novelist plays God in their stories. In Kaufman’s novel the villain is easy to spot because he has a penis.
One of the main story threads is that an awkward, love sick girl has a crush on a male teacher, a preening playboy type, and she writes him a love note, which he returns corrected for spelling and grammar. Isn’t that just like a man. Brute. So she kills herself by jumping out a window at school.
Of course in the post SEX, LIES AND VIDEOTAPE world, the one with the penis would have perpetuated a different crime to get the same results. He would have accepted her advances, probably have made the advances in the first place, groomed her, seduced her, committed statutory rape upon her, and abandoned her. Then she could jump out a window and he would have been just as guilty. But this didn’t register on my mind at the time.
I didn’t see the movie when it came out as I was in Israel at the time. I must have caught it on a late run double feature the next year, but came away with no critical opinion. That was because I had a crush on Sandy Dennis who had the ersatz Bel Kaufman part. She was the kind of mild, pale, dishwater blonde type, like Carol Lynley, I went slack jawed, mouth breathingly, deep breathingly, fascinated by, while other people thought she was just ordinary. Nothing special. If there was any fiction that I related to it at the time it wasn’t Up The Down Staircase, (though I’ve heard mention that one character was described as a brilliant, gifted student who was failing all his classes which would seem to fit me to a “T” but I don’t remember him), but Philip Roth’s When She Was Good. I sort of worked out the urgency (and I guess curiosity) with Linda L in Iowa City, very much as Roth, or the Roth-like character did in the book. I still was enraptured in 1968 and I’m still enraptured today, even stripped of any illusion of paradise.
Watching Sandy Dennis occupied most of my attention in my first viewing, so I didn’t remember too much of the film. I was in my early 20’s when I saw it. The whole “she was my teacher” thing was beginning to fade away. Bel Kaufman was not this heavenly blond chick, but a 50-year-old woman so I didn’t connect too much with its origins. The years were rolling by and became decades. In my mind Bel Kaufman became Sholem Aleichem’s daughter. I rarely told the story about, you know, Sholem Aleichem’s daughter was my English Teacher in 9th grade. I find that the more famous the celebrity, the less likely people are to believe you’ve met the person in question, but too few people knew who Sholem Aleichem was. So it passed out of my repertoire. I had better stories about more famous people. Once I came into possession of the dates of Sholem Aleichem life and realized it was impossible for Bel to be his daughter, and found out she was in fact his granddaughter, it made for an even flimsier story. Oh, maybe if I were reading the paper and I saw her name and connection I might have mentioned to whomever I was with, “You know she was my High School English teacher” but I don’t remember its even making any impression or leading to a conversation.
Nothing was brought into focus until I read an article about Bel Kaufman in what must have been the mid-eighties, maybe the ‘90s. It could have been ten years ago too. Anyway in this article Bel Kaufman was interviewed and she proudly declared that when she was a teacher she determined that she would only teach the girls and ignore completely the boys. Suddenly all of the memories came flooding back. I remember how she had arranged the classroom. It was segregated and I remember on the first day how specific she was. She had girls in the first couple of front rows and diagonally down the east (or hall) side of the classroom, with the boys in the back rows and diagonally up the west (or window) side. I didn’t notice anything untoward at the time as my seat of choice, as it had been for many years, was the last seat in the last row by the window so I was happy with the arrangement. When she taught she gathered the girls around her in the front of the classroom and had the boys go away to the back where they could do anything they wanted. Because of the position of my desk they usually gathered around me. I remember one pock-faced, buck-toothed mouth breather leaning in, all the boys very interested in his telling about the vagina he got to see. It had, he assured us, these little worms in it. It was a self-fulfilling prophecy. Guys are pigs. Just look at them and what they talk about.
Now I realized how betrayed I was. That year they gave us the Iowa Tests, probably my first standardized test since my IQ test. I was in the 99th percentile. I didn’t quite know what that meant. I didn’t know what I had accomplished and I guess Miss Kaufman didn’t bother to tell anyone. I still don’t know what was supposed to have happened but I imagine that someone should have noticed they had a student like that and done something. It was like it never happened. But since, I’ve been able to read other people’s stories and something like that was a life-changing event. I was ignored by the school and my teacher. Certainly it fit in with Kaufman’s theme of an idiotic and unfeeling bureaucracy. Only from my point of view Kaufman was a willing member of that system, another cog in the wheels of the system.
I thought I was something of a writer at the time, in that I actually wrote things that I didn’t have to. It was mostly poetry, cringe worthy stuff no doubt, but I was writing on my own. With no help or encouragement from my English teacher. I didn’t even know that maybe I should have some encouragement. Unlike the brilliant kid in the book who was failing all of his courses. I remember too the art teacher. A black man (a novelty at the time) who used to spend the period working on his own painting. One of them I remember was of a candlelight procession in Oaxaca. I was interested in art, as much as a kid who grew up in a housing project in The Bronx without any mentorship could be. I took myself off to the Metropolitan Museum to see Aristotle Contemplating a Bust of Homer whose $2.3 million price tag was all over the news. I tried to strike up conversations with the art teacher but he wasn’t having anything to do with me. He never taught us anything about art. I made feeble attempts to learn something about art but I was even too shy to walk into an art gallery. I was brought up to think that there were places where I didn’t belong. I could have used an art teacher but this was all par for the course. So being ignored by Miss Kaufman wasn’t out of line. Standard operating procedure in New York City schools. But what got me, decades later, is that her educational malpractice was based on penis hatred. At least the art teacher didn’t decide he would only teach the black students and the rest could go to hell, the way Miss Kaufman did teach the girls and the boys could go to hell. All of his students could go to hell. I built a model plane that was put in a shadow box on Atomic Energy of all things. I used to see it with my name on a little label. Then I didn’t see it so I went to the office but found out they just threw it out. No apology. No eye contact. That’s just what we do. Next!
I did have the opportunity of seeing UP THE DOWN STAIRCASE again in 2009 (on TCM), however. I didn’t realize just how badly it stank. First of all, in typical Hollywood fashion, the film must be reduced to a simple genre. If it’s a High School drama so that must mean one thing: Blackboard Jungle. So the film was shot in East Harlem (exteriors) and featured a lot of gang action and basic tough stuff. In fact Taft High School was located one block from the Grand Concourse in what was still a middle class Jewish neighborhood. While Miss Kaufman had undoubtedly taught at schools before Taft, maybe even tougher than Taft, there was a certain amount of fudging to “dramatize the situation” that wasn’t even in the book. As Hitchcock might say, it’s only a movie.
What brought out all of this pustulance was an article a friend gave me that Miss Kaufman had written for Vogue last summer. There was an accompanying picture, a black and white from her teaching at Hunter College (circa 1963), and there was the confirming image. There she was standing up by the door, surround by a semi circle of apparently adoring girls, enraptured by Miss Kaufman, and in the back of the room, a lone male, a black male, not too happy and obviously not part of the proceedings. It was just as I had remembered it.
Now this all has a solid punchline. The article that Miss Kaufman wrote for Vogue was in praise of a teacher who was influential in her life, a male teacher. Now, if he had decided he was only going to teach the boys and not waste his time with the girls…..