Teaching Is a Gift

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  • Topic: To Be and to Have
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UNIT FIVE
TEXT FIVE
UP THE DOWN STAIRCASE
By Bel Kaufman
(Fragment)
Bel Kaufman, an American writer. She worked as a teacher of the English language and literature in a New York high school for 15 years. "Up the Down Staircase" (1964) is her first prominent work. The book deals with the experiences of a young high school teacher.

Sept. 25
Dear Ellen,*
It's FTG (Friday Thank God), which means I need not set the alarm for 6:30 tomorrow morning; I can wash a blouse, think a thought, write a letter. Congratulations on the baby's new tooth. Soon there is bound to be another tooth and another and another, and before you know it, little Suzie will start going to school, and her troubles will just begin. Though I hope that by the time she gets into the public high school system, things will be different. At least, they keep promising that things will be different. I'm told that since the recent strike threats, negotiations with the United Federation of Teachers, and greater public interest, we are enjoying "improved conditions". But in the two weeks that I have been here, conditions seem greatly unimproved. You ask what I am teaching. Hard to say. Professor Winters advised teaching "not the subject but the whole child". The English Syllabus urges "individualization and enrichment" — which means giving individual attention to each student to bring out the best in him and enlarge his scope beyond the prescribed work. Bester says "to motivate and distribute" books — that is, to get students ready and eager to read. All this is easier said than done. In fact, all this is plain impossible.

Many of our kids — though physically mature — can't read beyond 4th and 5th grade level. Their background consists of the sim- [131] plest comics and thrillers. They've been exposed to some ten years of schooling, yet they don't know what a sentence is. The books we are required to teach frequently have nothing to do with anything except the fact that they have always been taught, or that there is an oversupply of them, or that some committee or other was asked to come up with some titles. I've been trying to teach without books. There was one heady moment when I was able to excite the class by an idea: I had put on the blackboard Browning's1 "Aman's reach should exceed his grasp, or what's a heaven for? " and we got involved in a spirited discussion of aspiration vs.2 reality.'Is it wise, I asked, to aim higher than one's capacity? Does it not doom one to failure? No, no, some said, that's ambition and progress! No, no, others cried, that's frustration and defeat! What about hope? What about despair? — You've got to be practical! — You've got to have a dream! They said this in their own words, you understand, startled into discovery. To the young, cliches seem freshly minted. Hitch your wagon to a star! And when the dismissal bell rang, they paid me the highest compliment: they groaned! They crowded in the doorway, chirping like agitated sparrows, pecking at the seeds I had strewn — when who should materialize but Admiral Ass.3 "What is the meaning of this noise?"

"It's the sound of thinking, Mr. McHabe," I said.
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 Gielgud4 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,5 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...
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