Up the Down Staircase Southern California style, with most of the kids coming off as weird, troublesome, or troubled: the rootless products of the Age of Aquarius. The ""Cloud"" of the title is a Holden Caulfield fan with flower-painted fingernails; her mother, Mrs. Kamali, is a zonked-out messenger of the occult--in other lives, she insists, Cloud was an abbess and she a rebel monk, so Cloud killed her. Crude propositions and breathtaking acrobatics across classroom floors, on the other hand, were the province of ""Juicy Brucie,"" who used his gymnastic skill to camouflage an inability to read. Martin is remarkably philosophical about the fact that few of these students--some of them highly gifted--hand in assignments or generally connect with what's going on; she takes a wry, whaddya-gonna-do attitude toward every class from Comparative Literature to Women's Studies to Reading Lab (where the students promptly took the opportunity to play Santana music instead of story tapes, and card tricks were sanctioned to keep them in order). In a climate where emotional concerns are paramount, intellectual achievement downplayed, Martin copes by being a friend and confidante to the highly volatile young lives entrusted to her; they burden her with pregnancy, lesbianism, impotence as a result of cancer treatment, and affairs with Hollywood celebrities, until the reader begins to wonder whether English classes ever discuss books anymore. Altogether a disheartening account, all the more so since it carries implications of similar doings elsewhere: the teacher's empathy may be model, the kids' problems monumental, but what becomes of the analytical tools and skills shunted aside? Sad and wearying.