Joined: 25 Oct 2005
|Posted: Sun Nov 20, 2005 6:34 am Post subject: Before 'Ashes,' he was a teacher
|The last 50 pages of Frank McCourt's third memoir, Teacher Man, out today, is as good as writing gets about teaching and learning and finding yourself through writing. The rest of the book isn't as rich. But that's like saying 'Tis, McCourt's second book, isn't as good as his first, Angela's Ashes, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1997.
One life, no matter how miserable or redemptive, is a lot to hang three books on. Angela's Ashes came out of nowhere. It's lovely and heartbreaking, about surviving an Irish childhood of near-starvation. It made McCourt a media darling, the "mick of the moment," he writes. So he wrote a sequel, 'Tis, which follows McCourt to New York, where the high school dropout became a high school teacher. But he was left with the nagging feeling "I'd given teaching short shrift." Teaching, he writes, "is the downstairs maid of professions.'
So he wrote a sequel to his sequel. Teacher Man is about 30 years of teaching English. It's full of humor, compassion and resentment. At times, the resentment gets in the way of the story or, as he puts it, "The mick from the lanes of Limerick letting the envy hang out." McCourt notes he didn't publish his first book until he was 66. What took so long?
"I was teaching, that's what took me so long. Not in college or university, where you have all the time in the world for writing and other diversions, but in four different New York City public high schools." He has read novels about professors "so busy with adultery and academic in-fighting you wonder where they found time to squeeze in a little teaching." But when you teach high school classes all day, "you're not inclined to go home to clear your head and fashion deathless prose. After a day of five classes, your head is filled with the clamor of the classroom."
The best of Teacher Man re-creates that clamor, first in a vocational school where future mechanics and beauticians don't want to be bothered with Walt Whitman and ultimately at Stuyvesant High for "the brightest of the bright." There his students tell him, "Mr. McCourt, you're lucky. You had that miserable childhood so you have something to write about." He writes in flowing sentences about the small daily triumphs and failures of teaching and how he defied principals and other authorities whose jargon-filled sentences rarely flow.
"I didn't always love teaching," he writes. "I was out of my depth. ... Don't expect help from the people who've escaped the classroom, the higher-ups."
But students help. There's a masterful description of a freewheeling class on Theodore Roethke's poem My Papa's Waltz.
On his final day as a teacher, "Someone calls, Hey, Mr. McCourt, you should write a book."
"I'll try," he writes, the final sentence of Teacher Man.
His students should be proud.