This article was first published at The Compulsive Reader back a few years ago.
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Frank McCourt is once again topping the best seller lists, and ‘tis grand to have him back.
It must be daunting for a writer with a popular blockbuster, a critical smash, a Pulitzer Prize winner on his first try out of the box, at sixty six years of age no less, it must, indeed, be daunting for such a writer not simply to sit on his pen and to put himself on the line again. And so when his second memoir, while certainly a pleasant enough read if never quite capturing the raw emotional power of the first gleans a much more modest reception, it is probably no great surprise. After all, how many Angela’s Ashes does one writer have in his life? But then to try still third time. . . .
Well, if Teacher Man is any indication, at least one more anyway. McCourt’s latest trek through the days of his life is a compelling complement to his first volume. If it doesn’t have quite the pathos of the first, it makes up for it with critical insight and contemporary relevance. It is a book as much about the present in its implications as it is about one man’ memories of his past.
Most of the book is devoted to describing McCourt’s thirty years teaching English in the New York City high schools. He begins in 1958 in Mckee Vocational and Technical High School in Staten Island, spends some time at Fashion Industries High School and then Seward Park, a year at New York City Community College, and ends up at what he and many others consider the jewel of the City system Peter Stuyvesant High School (which was located, as many of you might well know, in lower Manhattan, right across the street from the World Trade Center).
Like his other work, the core of Teacher Man is the anecdote. Frank McCourt is a master story teller. He’ll make you laugh as he explains how he handled the problem of the flying baloney sandwich on his first day of teaching. He’ll get your eyes to well up a little as he tells of the student who describes how her father died while the family was watching the first landing on the moon on television in the next room. He’ll force you to question an educational system that mandates vocabulary words like usufruct and condign for fifteen year old plumbers-to-be as he describes the lament of one mother during his first round of parent teacher conferences. His stories are often touching and always engaging, but they are not merely stories for stories’s sake, they seem usually to have a point, a lesson if you will. There is always something to be learned from experience, and McCourt is, after all, a teacher.
And as all real teachers know, students are not the only ones in the classroom who learn. It is in the high school classroom that McCourt, like so many before and since, truly learn what teaching is all about. He makes it perfectly clear that when he stepped into that classroom in McKee High School in March of ‘58, he hadn’t the foggiest notion of what he was doing. His collegiate preparation in pedagogy was about as helpful in the real world of the classroom as ‘usufruct’ would be in stopping a leaking toilet. Professors of education who more often than not have no actual experience in the secondary school classroom had provided little of practical use to the novice faced with thirty five restless, recalcitrant teenagers. Courses in the history and philosophy of education offered little preparation for dealing with the everyday problems of classroom management, student behavior and lack of motivation. Even the so-called practical methodology courses most usually presumed ideal circumstances with unlimited resources, extensive time to plan and well behaved students willing to listen to the teacher and follow instructions. They offered little help with the student who smiles in defiance and explains, "I don’t got no pen, Teach." Moreover, they still don’t.
Thus, with regard to the episode of the baloney sandwich: "Professors of education at New York University never lectured on how to handle flying-sandwich situations. They talked about theories and philosophies of education, about moral and ethical imperatives, about the necessity of dealing with the whole child, the gestalt, if you don’t mind, the child’s felt needs, but never about critical moments in the classroom." This was the late fifties. One wonders how much things may have changed.
McCourt describes an educational system in which teachers are discouraged from letting their students see them as anything more than authority figures in front of the room behind a desk. It is a system that values discipline and order even at the expense of learning. This is not to say that education can take place where there is anarchy, but it is to say that quiet classrooms do not necessarily mean that anyone is learning anything. It is a system that asks teachers to patrol halls and bathrooms, to tend to administrative paper work, and make sure that parents are satisfied with whatever it is their children are learning and how quickly they are learning it. It is a system that puts them in five classes with some thirty five students in each, that asks them to take home 175 or so student essays, read them, correct them for spelling and grammar, to edit them for substance and clarity, make constructive criticisms, and finally to put that all important grade on them.
It is a system in which for most teachers the greatest ambition is to escape from the classroom, to become a guidance counsel or perhaps ultimately the goal of goals–administrator.
Although by far the greatest share of the book is devoted to his educational career, McCourt does sprinkle in some seasoning from his life outside the classroom. He talks about working on the docks while attending college. He describes his abortive attempt at a doctorate at Trinity College in Dublin. There is a perverse romantic relationship with one of his college classmates who is also having an affair with one of the professors. There is an inauspicious party with a moderately famous literary figure who takes delight in ridiculing and abusing his guests. There is even an account of an unsatisfactory regimen of psychiatric treatment and group therapy. And always, whether he is writing about his classroom or his bedroom, Frank McCourt is honest; Frank McCourt is entertaining.
Having spent four years teaching in the New York City school system back in the early sixties, myself, I can attest to the fact that the experiences he describes are both typical and accurate. He speaks with authority. He knows what he is talking about. He knows what makes for good teaching and what is merely busy work. He knows that students need to be challenged. He understands that sometimes education comes in strange ways and odd circumstances, maybe even in reciting recipes to musical accompaniment. He understands that some students can be pushed and some cannot, and his thirty years in the business have taught him which is which. A reader couldn’t want a better guide through the maze that is secondary education in a big city school system.
He talks of his successes, his dynamic creative teaching experiences: students writing fictional excuse notes for Adam, for Eve, for God; an ethnic food picnic in the park outside the school. He talks about his failures: a student pressed to describe in detail the dinner he had eaten alone the night before, only to learn that the student was eating alone because his father was in the hospital dying of cancer. These are, of course, his experiences, but in a sense they are the experiences of a good many teachers who have spent their lives in the classroom, and he uses these experiences to pay just a little attention where some attention is long overdue,
In America, doctors, lawyers. generals, actors, television people and politicians are admired and rewarded. Not teachers. Teaching is the downstairs maid of professions. Teachers are told to use the service door or go around the back. They are congratulated on having ATTO (All That Time Off). They are spoken of patronizingly and patted retroactively on their livery locks. Oh, yes, I had an English teacher, Miss Smith, who really inspired me. I’ll never forget dear old Miss Smith. She used to say that if she reached one child in her forty years of teaching it would make it all worthwhile. She’d die happy. The inspiring English teacher then fades into gray shadows to eke out her days on a penny-pinching pension, dreaming of the one child she might have reached. Dream on, teachers. You will not be celebrated.
On the contrary, "Teacher Man" is that celebration