Frank McCourt's classroom memoirs in "Teacher Man"
Special to The Seattle Times
by Frank McCourt
Scribner, 258 pp., $26
Frank McCourt knows what it's like to be, in his own words, the "mick of the moment." He's won a Pulitzer, a National Book Critics Circle Award and a host of other honors. His memoirs have sold millions of copies and been translated into 30 languages.
But McCourt hasn't lost touch with his roots. "Angela's Ashes," after all, was about his hardscrabble childhood in Ireland. "'Tis" chronicled his coming of age on the docks of 1950s New York, as an American GI in Germany and as a student working his way through New York University.
Once he finally earned his degree, McCourt didn't settle for a career on Easy Street. Instead he spent three decades as a high-school English instructor in New York City's public-school system. Now his third memoir recalls those years and pays tribute to what, he laments, is too often regarded as "the downstairs maid of professions." "Teacher Man" is the McCourt you've come to expect: wry, rambling, charming, rueful.
Chalk it up to his father's abandonment of the family when McCourt was still a kid; or maybe to the schoolyard bullies, castigating priests and harsh schoolmasters of his youth; or perhaps even to the dock workers whose "generosity of belly and heart" he never felt he could emulate — McCourt is a master at self-deprecation.
He describes himself variously as an ass, a poltroon, a "two-faced blathering mick," an aimless "periphery man." "No vision, no plan, no goal," he grumbles. "Just amble to the crypt, man. Fade and leave no legacy ... "
But really, he knows better than that. In spite of the detours in his personal life and the missteps in his education — in teaching he finds his way. As a beginning teacher, he quickly learns that the smug theories meted out by his education professors at NYU have little to do with life in the classroom. He casts aside the useless advice and learns to navigate his own way.
Suddenly, the storm-tossed Atlantic crossings of his earlier years pale in comparison with the choppy seas of a high-school classroom. Academic apathy, hormone-driven angst, flying sandwiches, dozing students and an occasional "ecstasy of plagiarism" — he learns to deal with it all.
As a creative-writing instructor struggling to motivate his classes, McCourt hits upon an epiphany when a student hands him a bogus excuse note with a parent's forged signature. He already has a drawer filled with "These gems of fiction, fantasy, creativity, crawthumping, self-pity, family problems, boilers exploding. "
Realizing that this is creative writing at its best, he turns excuse notes into assignments. The students' responses are inspired.
In McCourt's classes, cookbooks might become templates for poetry, poems might become templates for life, and life — McCourt's own life — becomes the subject of stories he tells his classes to keep them engaged, to keep them coming back, to give them perspectives beyond the bounds of the neighborhoods they've grown up in. He gets in trouble for this on more than one occasion. Sometimes he even gets fired for failing to stick to the curriculum.
But McCourt wants his students to learn something more important than conjugation. "Whatever ideas they had came from the avalanche of media in our world," he frets. "No one had ever told them they had a right to think for themselves."
"Teacher Man" is a fiercely irrepressible celebration of a noble enterprise, the results of which can't always be quantified or measured by standardized tests. The reader cannot miss McCourt's expansive belief that, when it comes to getting the message across to students, passion for a subject will trump austere professionalism just about every time.
To conclude, this retired creative-writing teacher offers advice consecrated by the magnificent trilogy of memoirs he has gifted us with over the last decade.
"Every moment of your life, you're writing," he says.
"You are your material."
Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company