There’s a great essay in today’s Washington Post by a high school teacher named Nancy Schnog who found inspiration in a book written by another high school teacher, Bel Kaufman, in 1964. It is Up the Down Staircase. Kaufman, the grand-daughter of beloved writer Sholom Aleichem, whose stories inspired “Fiddler on the Roof,” wrote an epistolary novel (made up of notes, letters, memos, reports, fliers, and other written ephemera) about
an English teacher’s struggles with school bureaucracy, with students up and down the axis of caring to couldn’t-care-less, and with her inner self as she strives to do a job that asks everything — oversee, organize, proctor, chaperone, coach — except the thing she’s there to do: teach.
The book was an enormous hit in the 1960’s, translated into 16 languages and made into an award-winning film starring Sandy Dennis.
The novel poses the question that still haunts many an English teacher: Should I stay and fight on behalf of literature, or go earn money at a job with intellectual challenges, edible food, bathroom breaks and a blissful absence of school bells?
This was the dilemma ruining my sleep. Even though as a private-school teacher I benefited from small class sizes, the multitasking high school grind was dragging me down. My daily rounds included five literature classes with roughly 10 minutes to review assigned books before class. That was all the time I had to prepare lessons and grade papers too. In between 250 minutes of instruction each day, the “free periods” were a mind-numbing dash from students’ questions to parents’ e-mails to administrative duties. Throw in, too, the daily troubleshooting: investigating a case of plagiarism, fixing the Xerox machine (again), explaining to the girl texting during class why she is going to the discipline committee.
All this, plus the biggest problem of all: how, while on the run, to instill passion for serious literature in a generation of students with a shrinking interest in reading, as iPods, Facebook and YouTube consume their mental universe.
Schnog was able to speak with Kaufman, now 98 years old and glad to explain “that the human encounter between teacher and student is often a more powerful teaching tool than the academic content on a paper or test.” Now that is a good lesson.
Larry Gelbart, one of the most acclaimed and prodigiously productive writers of almost seven decades died this week at age 81. If you’ve laughed since the 1940’s, you almost certainly know his work. He got started as a teenager writing for Danny Thomas’ radio show and went on to work with Neil Simon, Woody Allen, and Mel Brooks on the legendary writing staff of the Sid Caesar show. He went on to co-create the television version of “M*A*S*H,” to co-write the script for “Tootsie,” and to write the Broadway hits “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” (made into a movie with Zero Mostel) and “City of Angels” (now being adapted into a film).
And as this lovely tribute by Bob Elisberg notes, he was also a man of great principle and kindness.
There may have been more renowned writers in a single medium, but his versatility was breathtaking, and so he may have been the most successful and best writer ever in America who wrote in all three major media — the theater, movies and television.
Be sure to read Elisberg’s piece, especially the quote at the end from Gelbart about being a writer.
Here is Gelbart, talking about how television has changed society and how he’d like to be remembered.
Here is my favorite scene from “Tootsie” (second on the American Film Institute’s list of the hundred funniest American films of all time).
And here is the trailer for the hilarious “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.”
NPR’s Scott Simon also has a fine essay about Gelbart, describing him as “a great wit, who wrote with great heart.” It’s good to know that we still have another movie from him to look forward to.
Parents and some grandparents will remember the old “Beany and Cecil” show about the boy with the propeller hat and his friend the sea-sick sea serpent and their adventures in outsmarting the dastardly Dishonest John.
I’m very pleased that these adorable old cartoons are now available on DVD, including this week’s release of Bob Clampett’s Beany And Cecil Volume 2, including some nice extras like bumpers (the short clips before and after commercials) and some of the irreverent Clampett’s other work. I did not know until I heard him speak at Comic-Con that the hilarious Stan Freberg worked on “Beany and Cecil,” but it helps to explain the jokes that we had to think about a little harder to understand why our parents were laughing.
Based on David J. Smith’s best-selling and award-winning book If the World Were a Village: A Book about the World’s People, this is an animated story about global culture that helps families understand our differences, our commonality, and our connections.
It asks us to imagine that the whole world had just 100 people. And then it tells us how many of that 100 would speak English, Chinese, Spanish, Arabic, and Bengali, how many would have running water, how many would be children and how many would be elderly, how many would have enough money for toys or food, how many would be able to read, and how many would be Christian, Jewish, Hindu, Muslim, Buddhist, or Animist.
It may be difficult for young children to process all of the information, but this film is an excellent way to begin important discussions with children about how we fit into the world and how our lives compare with others. It is available in English, Spanish, and French, and now, because I have watched the film, I know which five other languages it would have to come in to be able to be understood by half the world.