Teacher Man

Teacher Man, Frank McCourt. Harper Collins, 2005.
ISBN: 0007173989, RRP $49.95

Nothing can prepare you for your first day of teaching. Stepping into a room filled with teenage bodies, each staring at you, waiting for you to take the lead for the year, is an unforgettable experience. Unlike most jobs, you can’t go to your boss and ask for help. No one can step you through it, as your class is exactly that, your class, whether you have the experience of 30 years or 30 seconds. You either tough it out or you don’t. Sink or swim.

Thankfully for us, Frank McCourt spent 30 years treading water in the tumultuous waves of the New York City public schools system, paddling through its extremes of trade schools and select entry college feeders. The result is an engaging and lively read that chronicles this experience. McCourt is undoubtedly a brilliant storyteller; he alternates voices, from his own quasi-Irish accent, stubbornly persisting through years of exile, to the distinctively ‘Noo Yawk’ inflections of his students, who provide the semi-tautological title of the book.


Left unsaid, but forever lurking on the margins of the pages, is the fact that McCourt’s teaching was both a source of material and a site for training in the art of story telling. McCourt freely admits to bluffing his way through countless hours of class time by telling his students stories. He devotes large chunks of the book to endearingly rambling digressions. McCourt celebrates this narrative mode of teaching, opposing it to the transmission of required knowledge of grammar, spelling and paragraph structure.

He treats the reader to many anecdotes about growing up in poverty-stricken Limerick, sailing to New York at 19 with one new suit, a cardboard suitcase and a copy of Shakespeare (bought in the hope of impressing a girl, any girl), working on the New York docks. He ends up on a GI Bill sponsored teaching course at New York University, despite the absence of a high school diploma (a beautiful irony over which McCourt gracefully steps). Although we have met some of the material and style in his earlier books Angela’s Ashes and ‘Tis, these stories are engaging enough to satisfy the reader. He provides the necessary backdrop to landing in a profession which he had no intention of making into a career. Nevertheless, he continued in it for thirty years.

McCourt displays a chip on his shoulder when he talks about his profession. He takes pains to dispel some of the myths about teachers and their craft that are held by the people who surround him. On one side are the students - teenagers who look only for what will get them the best marks with a minimum of effort; on another side are their parents, sometimes fiercely protective of their offspring, at other times highly critical, but always in an adversarial relationship with the teacher as surrogate parent. On another side is the school bureaucracy, a body which becomes more powerful (and better paid) the further it moves away from the classroom. On the fourth side of the square are the average people who, remembering their own high school days, assume teaching to be a laid back, if underpaid, profession, and are jealous of ATTO (All That Time Off).

McCourt brings together this sense of being separated from others with a sneaking sense of guilt that he is not doing what a teacher is supposed to do (whatever that may be). The result is the self-portrait of a man who lives from day to day, following whatever path lies before him. An isolated figure, he is further detached by spending most of his working life with teenagers, who can never accept him as one of their own.

McCourt’s isolation does not begin with his teaching career. It is just the latest event in his life that casts him as an outsider. When he was four, McCourt’s family sailed to Ireland. He naively brought his New York accent with him, a crime for which he was beaten mercilessly by his peers in the lanes of Limerick. Later, having returned to New York, his acquisition of a Limerick accent identified him as an immigrant, unable to find more than menial labour. He grew accustomed to an identity of neither this nor that, falling into the paradoxical life of a teacher: a solitary adult who must constantly communicate.

It was natural for McCourt to shoulder the Sisyphean burden of teaching five classes a day, five days a week, with up to 175 students, and then to go home to prepare the next round of classes and to mark the 175 pieces of teenage prose - all the while knowing that he would not be granted connection and acceptance by those surrounding him, much less appreciation and praise. Not only does he tolerate this fate, but he actively thrives, improvising and experimenting, disdaining the praise of authority. So he has many minor successes which simultaneously delight and confound his students.

Classes conceived in this spirit, often in the heat of the moment, provide the most entertaining moments of the book. One day, after sampling a student’s home cooked food, he encourages students to bring in recipes and to read them out loud, so experiencing their inherent musical qualities. The students take the music to another level by providing their own accompaniment. Another day, after receiving yet another fraudulent excuse note, into which his students put their most creative and engaging work, he harnesses their creativity by having them write excuse notes for historical figures whose actions call for explanation.

But these moments of inspiration do not linger. McCourt insists that the reality of a teacher’s life is to see people come and go, as his students grow and graduate. The outsider, the Teacher Man, stands at a distance from all things, including his family he left behind in Ireland and his marriage whose collapse is passed over in a few sentences. The emotional distance natural to an immigrant becomes a chasm that can be bridged only through the art of story telling. McCourt’s gift is to practise this art well.

 

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