Teaching remains a life’s passion for 101-year-old Bel Kaufman, who’s learned some lessons of her own along the way.
I have been teaching for about 80 years, but I can remember the moment I first knew I wanted to stand in front of students forever. It could have been 1931 or 1932. I was a student at Hunter College in New York; it gave me an extraordinary education. Our teachers weren’t just people who had a license to teach; they were scholars. Blanche Colton Williams, the grande dame and head of the English department, used to take staff and her favorite students to tea at the Plaza Hotel. She always wore an orchid. She taught Anglo-Saxon, and thanks to her, I knew half of Beowolf by heart. Then I studied Middle English; that’s Chaucer. I still love “The Wife of Bath’s Tale,” which says, “Husbondes at chirche dore she hadde five, Withouten other compaignye in youthe!”
My first teaching experience took place during this time, when one day, my friend Elizabeth invited me to visit her class at the Hunter elementary school. I stood before her students, who were maybe six or seven, and what I remember so vividly is all those little ones with their eyes fixed on me waiting. I knew I had to give something interesting and valuable, something that they would perhaps remember all their lives. I have never lost that feeling.
I had come from Odessa, a beautiful city, and Moscow, where I lived during the Russian Revolution. I remember several regimes: Bolsheviks, Mensheviks, Kerenskys. During the Bolshevik regime, my baby brother was born. I was nine. While I was wheeling him in a carriage in front of our house, two young women in leather jackets approached me. We used to call them “the new women.” They lifted my brother out of the carriage, put him in my skinny arms, and wheeled the carriage away, saying, “We have babies also.” Our family was the enemy of the government not only because we were Jews but because we were bougeois; we had our own house, a cook, and a maid.
We left Russia for New York when I was twelve, and we settled in the Bronx, where my widowed grandmother had a large apartment. My father was a doctor, but he couldn’t practice medicine in America with his German diploma (he had gone to medical school in Berlin). He took and passed the first state boards offered, in Trenton, New Jersey. He answered mostly in Latin, because he didn’t know English yet. Since there was no reciprocity in New York State, he had to practice in New Jersey, so we moved to Newark.
I remember my highschool teacher, Mr. Stock. Of course, I personally wanted to be a writer. My grandfather was Sholom Aleichem, the celebrated author whose “Tevye the Dairyman” stories were made into Fiddler on the Roof. I loved Mr. Stock because he treated all of us as equals; if we were absent and missed a lesson, he would say, “That’s too bad; we were hoping to know what you thought about the topic.” He shared his passions, such as poetry, with us. I am passionate about poetry, too- Russian, English, French, and German. German poets are great; I hate the language but love the poetry.
Over the years, I have written many short stories for different magazines; “A Love Letter To A Dead Teacher” was a story I wrote about Mr. Stock. I said that when he quoted Shakespeare’s “Who can say more than this rich praise, that you alone are you,” I knew he meant me. So did the 34 other students in the room. He made each of us feel as if he was speaking directly to one of us.
When I was born, my name was Belle, but when I was writing short stories, my agent wanted to send one, “La Tigresse,” to Esquire, a new publication for men only. They did not publish women. My agent suggested that I spell my name B-E-L to sound male. I did, and I was the first woman published in Esquire, and the name remained.
After getting my master’s degree in English and comparative literature at Columbia, I could have done research or taught at the college level, but I felt that college students were already finished- I would be of no great influence to them. I wanted to show high schoolers, for whom I could still make some difference, the joy in reading and writing and learning, before the malaise of later life. I applied to be a high school teacher, but I ran into my big problem: the Board of Education. I kept flunking the orals on the teachers’ exam because I had a slight Russian accent. (Not like my mother, who never bothered learning English. We were on a bus once and my mother said, “Drriverr, drriverr- let me off!” A woman behind us asked my mother, “Are you Russina?” My mother wheeled around, incredulous: “How you know?”)
The first time I took the teachers’ exam, I passed the written and classroom tests with highest marks but was flunked on the oral test for “foreign melody.” (They didn’t dare say “accent.”) So I took many speech courses to get rid of the rolling R and the Slavic intonation, while I was teacher in high schools as a mere substitute.
The following year I passed the oral exam, but this time I was given a sonnet by Edna St. Vincent Millay, one I knew by heart. Instead of pretending to read it, I recited it: “Euclid alone has looked on Beauty bare….” That was a mistake; they didn’t like that. A letter came, saying, “Dear Sir or Madam” (they never discovered I was a madam), “failed for poor background in English and poor interpretation of the poem.” This time I was really angry. I went back to my professors, who wrote them of my literacy. I graduated from Hunter magna cum laude and from Columbia with highest honors and received awards for English literature and writing skill. I also wrote to Edna St. Vincent Millay, care of her publishers, and told her my story. She answered herself in a long letter, saying that my failure must be a clerical error. “I myself could never have described my poem so well,” she wrote. I photostatted her letter (we didn’t have Xerox yet) and sent it to the Board of Education. It met on my one little case to vote. I got a letter saying, “Dear Sir or Madam, your failure stands. However, if you take the exam next year we are confident that….” I did and I passed. I have heard that ever since (and I don’t know if this is true) candidates to teach English in New York City schools are given poems by very dead poets.
Over the years I have had many students who surprised me. I remember one who wrote a book report on the same book he had reported on the previous term. I chided him; he looked at me with injured innocence. “I read it again!” he said.
The High School of Performing Arts was a dream to teach in and very rewarding. It was near Times Square and no longer exists- it’s now part of LaGuardia High School. I remember Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia’s wife, Marie, with a brand-new shiny shovel breaking ground for it. When you get to be this age, you’ve been around. It had only 600 students in a little redbrick building with a drooping flag. Those kids came from all boroughs carrying their musical instruments, arriving before the school opened, staying after it closed. They’re now grand-parents! I still see some of them. At another school, I remember a boy who had flunked all of his classes except for science, who planned to leave school. I said, “Are you interested in science?” He said, “Yeah, but I’m through with school.” “Give me half an hour,” I said. “Walk with me to my home. I want to give you something.” There I pulled Microbe Hunters, by Paul de Kruif, off the bookshelf and handed it to him. “Read this over the summer. You may change your mind,” I said.
The following term, on the first day of school, I saw him. “You’re back,” I said. “That’s wonderful.” He said, “It was that book you gave me.” He said he never read it, but he returned to school because I had given him my own hardcover book. That did it, not words or lectures, but an act of caring. That’s a very important lesson.
Not too long ago, I was speaking at a retirement luncheon at the United Federation of Teachers in New York City, and it was as if I was back in college, speaking to those seven-year-olds again. I told the teachers that while they may think they are retiring, they are not. I can tell you, you are always a teacher. “You remain alive in thousands of memories and thousands of minds of people you have taught,” I said. “It’s a kind of immortality.”
Last year I taught a course on Jewish humor at Hunter College, where I’m an adjunct professor (they initially wanted me to teach Russian conversation). There were only about eight in the class. I threw away my notes, and we sat in a circle and just talked. About the many American comedians and writers of humor who are Jewish, which has to do with immigrants and the Borscht Circle that was born in the Catskills and their spoken-on-the-street stories. About how humor was poking fun at the person telling the joke as a kind of defense mechanism. In other words, before you call me a hypochondriac, I’ll tell you a story about hypochondria. A Frenchman, a German, and a Jew walk into a bar. The Frenchman says “I’m tired and thirsty, I must have wine.” The German says “I’m tired and thirsty, I must have beer.” The Jews says, “I’m tired and thirsty, I must have diabetes.” Here’s another one: A reported interviews Mrs. Adler, the mother of the famous Stella Adler. “You look so young. How old are you? “I am 48,” Mrs. Adler says. “But Mrs. Adler, your daughter Stella is 52. How can this be?” “Well,” says Mrs. Adler, “she leads her life. I lead mine.”
My husband is my second husband and only a baby at 95. He lectures on China and Marxism, and runs the Sholom Aleichem Memorial Foundation. Right now, I am not teaching; I am writing a book about my grandfather. It is based on a letter that he wrote me: “Dear Belochka, I’m writing you to ask you to hurry and grow up so that you can learn to write and you’ll be able to write me letters. In order to grow up, it is necessary to drink milk, eat soup and vegetables and fewer candies. Regards to your dolls. Your papa, Sholom Aleichem.” I was four years old, and I never answered that letter. Now I am doing so with my book Dear Papa.
I was in my 50’s when my first novel, Up the Down Staircase, was published and at once became a best-seller. The famous documentarian Albert Maysles has been filming my talks for a documentary, including one in which I discussed my book. The publishers held an obscenity conference. The word fuck on the blackboards of our school disturbed them. They asked me to change it to fuc. “No,” I said. “That’s one word they know how to spell.” It reminded me of the story about Norman Mailer, who in his first book used to spell it fug. When Tallulah Bankhead met Mailer, she said, “Oh, yes, you’re the young man who doesn’t know how to spell fuck.”
I’ve lived a long time, a very long time, 101 years, and I’m still here. I’m done with the doubts and struggles and insecurities of youth. I’m finished with loss and guilt and regret. I’m very old, and nothing is expected of me. Now, provided good health continues, I can do what I want. I can write my memoirs. I can edit my works for future eBooks. I can even do nothing- what a luxury that is! I have new priorities and a new appreciation of time. I enjoy my family more than ever, and also a sunny day and a comfortable bed. I keep up my interest in books and theater and people, and I’m tired, I rest. My former students write to me and visit me. I had many problems and disasters in my life; fortunately, at my age, I don’t remember what they were. I’m glad I am 101. — AS TOLD TO ROBERT SULLIVAN
COPYRIGHT, CONDE NAST 2012.