McCourt: “I Was TEACHING, That’s What Took So Long!”

This review appeared in the Books section of “Canada’s National Newspaper”, the Globe and Mail, on December 24, 2005. Thanks, Martin.

“Listen. Are you listening?…Every moment of your life, you’re writing… A simple stroll in the hallway calls for paragraphs, sentences in your head, decisions galore….The cool character, the charmer, doesn’t have to prepare much of a script. The rest of us are writing…”

For decades, it occurred mainly in the margins of student papers and in classroom dialogues, but now we all know what Frank McCourt was writing. Angela’s Ashes made him, as he derisively puts it, “the mick of the moment”, and this overnight success required only a miserable Irish childhood, then 50 years to come to terms with it. Those ensuing adult decades in the United States (“Isn’t this a great country altogether?”) were recounted in ‘Tis, but “after it was published I had the nagging feeling I’d given teaching short shrift”.

Now 75 years old, McCourt has redeemed that failing with Teacher Man, a superbly digressive stroll down the aisles of his teaching career in New York City. The mix of lamentation, wit and dogged observation will be familiar and welcome to those who enjoyed his earlier memoirs. This is a smaller canvas, but a richly remembered one.

To feel he had neglected teaching must have been a bitter irony for McCourt. In a pointed and often sarcastic prologue, he spins the ultimate fairy tale: teachers bathed in support and admiration by their communities, teachers lovingly heeded by government, teachers on television (“Imagine!”). He fantasizes about hollow-lived Hollywood actresses tearfully offering to trade their empty fame for the life of a teacher. HA!

In the same introduction, though, he paints the real picture. He lists the professionals that are admired and tangibly rewarded by North Americans: doctors, politicians and entertainers but “not teachers. Teaching is the downstairs maid of professions.” He compares the anonymity, even the outright humiliation, of his three decades in education with his unexpected status as a best-selling author, “a geriatric novelty with an Irish accent” whose opinions on nearly everything, suddenly, were eagerly sought. McCourt now wants all of us to hear this: Teaching is important. Teaching is hard. Teaching is heartbreaking, especially when it is done well. And teaching is how he learned to understand life well enough to write about it.

As a man who spent years in high school hallways, I loved the vindication of the profession that is so flamingly argued in the prologue.  I was moved to recognition, wry chuckles and the occasional fierce tear by Teacher Man. Chalk-stained wretches will find it a mirror, and not always a flattering one. More importantly, it is a window on the classroom for those who have forgotten what school (and what they) were like, or who ignore schools studiously until it’s time to lay blame for the Social Ill of the Week. Its passionate insights deserve a wide and thoughtful reading.

So how does McCourt show us high school life? No surprise here: he tells stories. The tales of childhood woe and immigrant struggle in his first two books were honed in front of skeptical audiences of teens. In Teacher Man, he occasionally strays from his classroom into accounts of this love affair, that strange roommate or loyal friend. I felt like a student trying to avoid a grammar lesson: Come on, sir, can we get back to those teaching stories? The classroom tales are dramatic, funny and poignant, the best of the book.

“Here they come. And I’m not ready.” McCourt remembers the wait for his first class at McKee Vocational and Technical High School, the same feeling I had every September for 20 years. The first part of the book, “It’s a Long Road to Pedagogy”, tells of his painful apprenticeship, bringing literary appreciation and writing skill to “the future mechanics and craftsmen of America”. “Yo, teacher man!” calls out Joey the Mouth, moments after an eccentric response to a flying baloney sandwich gives McCourt the first small victory of his career. “So, you Scotch or somethin’?” And the stories begin: the ones he tells his students, and the ones they live out with him.

Like all good teachers, he is haunted by his failures. Augie is beaten by his father in front of his classmates. Kevin the Lost Boy ends up utterly lost in Vietnam. Pedagogical truisms on the “posture and placement”, the “identity and image” of the good teacher are useless (or worse) to McCourt. He is accused, by Paulie’s mother at his first Open School conference and by his own relentlessly guilty conscience, of being “a fraud, a goddam fraud. Stories, stories, stories!”

Yet from baloney sandwich intuition to an epiphany on the literary value of forged excuse notes, McCourt is persistent and often inspired in opposing conventionality. He begins to turn the corner on his career. He feels, though, like “A Donkey on a Thistle” as this second part of Teacher Man tells of fitful ambitions and insecurities that keep him stumbling through various outposts of academe.

13 years into his career, seeing himself as “a failed everything…adrift in the American dream”, McCourt begins “Coming Alive in Room 205”, the title of the book’s final section. His only daughter Maggie has just been born, and he finds himself at Stuyvesant High School, “the jewel in the crown of the New York educational system”. Suddenly he is teaching ambitious and talented (if complacent) students in a school that values his unorthodox approach. “I began to feel at home in the world,” McCourt writes. His Creative Writing classroom overflows. “Why don’t they just let him teach in Yankee Stadium?”a colleague wonders.

We read of musical recitations from recipe books. We learn why “Little Bo Peep” might be McCourt’s favourite poem. We listen to him interrogating students about the previous night’s dinner, with startling results. We meet Jonathan the eternal cynic, Serena the gang leader with a heart of gold, and Bob, the Jewish Future Farmer of America. And in a way that we haven’t quite done before, we meet Frank McCourt: “wandering late bloomer, floundering old fart discovering in my forties [and fifties] what my students knew in their teens.”

His internal dialogues are biting, and his comments on education caustic and informed (if slightly repetitive). But his superb ear for the classroom experience is the centre of Teacher Man. We owe a debt to the unnamed student who called out, as the teacher walked away from the last class of his career, “Hey, Mr. McCourt, you should write a book!” I’m certainly grateful for his third one.

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