Friday, January 06, 2006

Old-School Wisdom from a Burnt-Out Counselor

There’s a crazy, burnt-out old guidance counselor at my school who falls asleep during faculty meetings and repeatedly schedules students for classes they’ve already passed. Most of the other teachers have completely written him off. I’d written him off too until I realized he had a pearl of wisdom for me about the New York City Board of Education.

The first time he saw me, he cleared a path for me in the crowded hall and said, “Watch out! Here comes Sandy Dennis!” If I’d had a clue about who or what he was referring to, I would've realized that he was actually being quite witty. But I had no idea what he was talking about, so I assumed he was crazy.

Over the next few months, he'd pop into my classroom at least once a week, point at me good-naturedly and say, “Sandy Dennis! Up the Down Staircase!” He would sometimes interrupt my lessons with this proclamation. I usually smiled politely and went on with my lesson. Finally, one morning, he came to my classroom, pointed at the suggestion box on my desk, and started cracking up. I really thought he was losing it, so I stopped my lesson to check in on him.

“Let me guess,” I said. “Sandy Dennis. Up the Down Staircase.”

“Have you seen that movie?” he asked, still cracking up.

“No, never even heard of it.”

“You must see it. Doesn’t she look like Sandy Dennis?”

“Who's Sandy Dennis?” asked 15-year old Jessica, whose lesson on prepositions had just been interrupted.

“Oh, you guys are too young. I’m a dinosaur.” He walked away, muttering, “But nothing has changed .”

I had absolutely no idea who Sandy Dennis was or what Up the Down Staircase was. For some reason, I had assumed it was an old Alfred Hitchcock movie. When I finally checked it out online, I found this synopsis from Hollywood.com: "Up the Down Staircase, 1967 (Feature Film - Drama, Adaptation) Teaching in an inner-city high school becomes a tough prospect for a young woman.”

Okay, so the burnt-out counselor’s comments were relevant. I tried adding Up the Down Staircase to my Netflix queue, but the film was apparently too obscure for Netflix, so I ended up ordering the VHS from Amazon.

Guess what? The crazy counselor was right. I AM like Sandy Dennis in Up the Down Staircase. In fact, I’ve never related to a character more. Sandy Dennis plays Miss Barrett, an idealistic yet dedicated and somewhat rebellious first-year teacher at a crappy NYC high school. She has a suggestion box just like mine, and she is straight out of a Master’s program like me. She teaches English to special education students (then called “special slows” or “non college-oriented”), and she struggles to share her love of literature with them. Miss Barrett also develops an incisive sense of humor about the ridiculous bureaucracies of the NYC Board of Education. This humor, I’ve learned, stems from Bel Kaufman, author of the original Up the Down Staircase, a bestselling novel published in 1964.

Kaufman’s book is now a major inspiration in my life. So thank you, crazy burnt-out old counselor, for recognizing in me the spirit of Sylvia Barrett. You’re right. Nothing has changed. There are still up staircases and down staircases. I walk up to the fifth floor of the school building every day for fear of getting stuck in the elevator that is always breaking down. Occasionally, I'll go out for coffee at the bodega across the street, and on my way back up, I'll get toppled by a group of teenagers running down to the basement for lunch at 10:30am (their scheduled lunch time). I must be literally walking up the down staircase. There are still Delaney Cards and petty Admiral Asses. Bells ringing off schedule and mixed-up Joe Ferrones. Drab faculty meetings and ineffective administrators. How can it be that so little progress has been made in forty years? Could it be that the quality of New York City’s public schools has actually deteriorated since the 1960’s? Should I get out? How long can a Sylvia Barrett last in this system?

6 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wow. I hope you keep teaching, Miss Sylvia Barrett. If I recall correctly from the book, though, she leaves the Board of Ed after a year.

2:57 PM  
Blogger Miss Dennis said...

Thanks! I've made it 2.5 years so far. I'm beginning to look for other jobs b/c the Board of Ed makes me feel like an indentured servant. Yet there's so much to love about the job. I'm torn. I don't plan to leave teaching, just possibly the Board of Ed (officially now the Dept. of Ed., but I refuse to call it that b/c I consider the name change on par with changing Burma to Myanmar - the name can change, but the brutal system is the same.)

6:07 PM  
Anonymous Jean said...

Yes, but just like Sylvia Barrett and many like her, you'll find that it is the kids that make up for all the assinine stupidity.

7:37 PM  
Blogger EdWonk said...

Well, at least that crazy ole card didn't call you Mr. Chips...

11:18 AM  
Blogger your math teacher said...

I feel the same exact way, Miss Dennis. I've been teaching 2.5 years so far as well and I feel like a teaching robot/slave in a pressure cooker. I've been debating all year whether to quit but it seems like a waste to quit before achieving tenure.

Have you read TeacherMan by Frank McCourt? The Dept of Ed is not going to change anytime soon, which makes me wonder everyday if it's worth sticking it out.

7:33 PM  
Anonymous Chris Lehmann said...

It's worth sticking it out. I spent nine years in the NYC system, and now I've moved to Philadelphia to start a school (public, non-charter) there.

It's worth it. Not every day, but a whole lot of them.

11:39 PM  

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