Going Up the Down Staircase…


Isn’t as easy as it used to be.

At an annual educator’s symposium for all the teachers of my local school district, I was struck once again at the progressive, innovative and dedicated people who congregated at the convention center. As we left our breakout sessions and descended to the general conference on the front level, I made my way to the escalators.

Seeing the crowd waiting to get on the electronic conveyance, I observed that several escalators weren’t in use at all. In the same moment that I flashed on the empty conveyors, I realized that, of course, those were moving up, not down. We could go down the up staircase. But the staircase was no longer motionless, but in fact was working against us as we attempted to descend.

I flashed back to the movie Up the Down Staircase, that also involved teachers, students and the ever-present staircases. As I laugh at how none of us attempt to beat the crowd by descending the up escalator, my husband begins to reflect on his school days when doing such a thing was a crime punishable by at very least detention, but usually accompanied by severe tongue lashings.

Somehow going the wrong way on a staircase seems a metaphor for my life. I can’t think of any big decisions or activities I have engaged in that weren’t just like this. Perhaps I wasn’t going up or down the wrong staircase, but I always seem to be entering the back door rather than the front. The front door would mean that I was fully prepared and “worthy” to enter. Even considering household’s with servants, we don’t see the help coming in the front door. The back door is reserved for those serving the family.

I started to add up all the endeavors I began by entering the wrong way, hence totally unprepared, but actually mostly undaunted. I don’t think I was born breech, but that may be the only thing I have done the direct way.

The earliest memory I have of this phenomenon occurred in high school. As a sophomore, I wanted to be in both choir and drama. Since I was already in advanced drama, it being my second year as a drama student, the hour it was offered was the same time as the beginning choir class, which is where I should have been. The only other choir I could take was the advanced Acappella choir. Having never been in a formal choir class, I did meet the prerequisites for this advanced choir. The drama coach and choir teacher talked it over, and I was put into the advanced choir. As it turned out it was a wonderful learning experience, but I definitely had a whole lot of catching up to do.

The next big backwards experience was in quitting high school at the end of my junior year to get married. This was an incredibly stupid thing for a barely 17-year-old to do, which bore out in an unhappy marriage that ended after 11 years. If my parents had objected, I am not sure I would have listened even though technically they had the power to keep it from happening. My husband was five years older, which gave my mom and dad a sense that at least he was mature.

I hope I didn’t earlier give the false impression that my tendency to push headlong into things for which I have not been prepared always turned out well. Sadly the failures have not deterred me from continuing on in the same mode.

In the first year of that marriage, I was a back door pro. I became a legal secretary without a high school diploma. Unlikely, but true. I went on to begin taking evening college classes toward a long-time goal of becoming a teacher without said diploma. As a matter of fact, I was only asked for evidence of having finished high school when I declared a major after completing all the general education requirements in night school. So I took a GED as a college junior.

In the years after my marriage ended, I found myself joining in with a group of teacher “dropouts,” who set out to form a “free” school in an area highly populated by “hippies.” As it would happen in our precarious lifestyle, each of us had to build our own houses. Of course, I had no experience with building, unless you can count the makeshift cage I built for the injured hawk I rescued as a kid. I set off reading a carpenter’s book as each part of the project presented itself. That bit of study and picking the brains of various carpenters passing by proved sufficient for me to build a cabin.

After re-entering the “straight” world, I began teaching high school journalism. I had previously helped a small private school produce a newspaper and a yearbook, but that was not sufficient preparation for beginning a paper for a major school. It was another instance of learning as I went, and it became a very successful 13-year venture.

So I have been thinking about why it is that I seem to “back into” situations, rather than just presenting myself at the front door, or just going up the up staircase. What I have come up with is that I am very capable, but lack confidence. I kind of trick myself into projects bigger than me, perhaps even ignoring the magnitude of the job, and then once I am committed, I can’t leave a task undone. Perhaps I even fantacize that I can do more than I can. Regardless of what compels me, the end result is that I tend to accomplish much more than I would ever imagine I could.

One of the consequences of how I do things—back handed, or probably going in the back door, or going up the down staircase—is that I can almost never take a compliment for anything I have achieved. All I can think is to say “but I didn’t mean to.”


– Shari




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