Story about a young teacher, Miss Barrett, who came to school for difficult children, Calvin Coolidge High School, written by Bel Kaufman in 1965, has spawned hundreds of imitations in literature and cinema. Kaufman was the first who has described the school as it is. The film, made by the book, showing the real life of school children, even banned watching children to twelve. It was back in 1967 in a democratic America. Bel Kaufman says that for all this time she didn’t read any books about the school, which would in some way not repeat her story. Bel died in the summer of 2014, at the age of 103 years.
Fragment of the interview taken by Anastasia Orlyansky in 2011.
– Bel, tell me, is it true that to you young writers still send manuscripts of stories and novels about the school?
– Yes, many letters come and people ask for advice. There are a lot of questions from those who want to write about the school. But I noticed that everything that was send to me, all the stories one way or another repeat “Up the Down Staircase”.
– You probably managed to describe all the main school archetypes … Tell us, how did you work on the book?
– I was then a teacher, worked in several schools. I was, as you say, “teacher”, I saw everything from the inside. Wrote what I saw, what worried me. I collected all the pieces of paper, I didn’t throw anything away, I documented everything – I even wrote down which of the students made mistakes. Everything down to the smallest detail: I drew a plan, I drew a school, where is what room is, what is in this room. There was no computer, I had to draw with multicolored ink.
– It turns out that you used a purely documentary method. Just fixed, and all?
“Partly.” I changed names and places so people would not recognize themselves. I invented some things, it’s a novel, a work of art. I also described my students with love, this is the most important thing. I still remember their faces.
I had one student. At the end of the semester, he told me that he would not return to school. He ruined all subjects, except science. I lived next to the school, invited him home, opened the door, and he was even shy to go. I took the book from the shelf, as I remember, a book from a series of “biographies of scientists”, titled “Microbe Hunters”. I thought I would not see him again, but he returned to school. I was very happy and asked if he had read the book, and he replied that he didn’t. He said that he came back because i paid him attention, brought him to my house, gave him a book in hard cover. This was very important for him.