Frank McCourt, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of “Angela’s Ashes,” came to speak to a packed audience at the Graduate School of Education on Tuesday, December 12, 2006 about his recent memoir, “Teacher Man.”
As the title reveals, prior to his whirlwind success as a best-selling author (which came about at the ripe age of 66), he spent thirty years in the New York City public school system as a high school English teacher.
“Teacher Man” is an animated and eclectic memoir that chronicles McCourt’s years as a school teacher. McCourt does not shy away from the gritty details of his days in the classroom. He describes many hilarious encounters with his varied students, ranging from the not-so-bright to the one-with-so-much-potential. Without trying to make this book a pedagogical tool, McCourt is able to strongly communicate how his writing was shaped through his teaching career. Although the sequence of events is confusing at times, jumping from his experiences as a nineteen-year old preparing for his voyage from Ireland to America to his failed marriage to Alberta Smalls, his writing is always entertaining, brutally honest, and a joy to read.
After serving in the Army for two years, McCourt attended NYU on the GI Bill and passed his teaching license exam. Reading a passage from “Teacher Man,” McCourt recalled his memorable first day as a teacher at McKee Vocational High School, when a sandwich thrown almost started a fight in his classroom. “Professors of education at New York University never lectured on how to handle flying-sandwich situations. They talked about the theories and philosophies of education, about moral and ethical imperatives.It was not any ordinary sandwich.This bread was dark and thick, baked by an Italian mother in Brooklyn, bread firm enough to hold slices of a rich baloney, layered with slices of tomato, onions and peppers, drizzled with olive oil and charged with a tongue-dazzling relish. I ate the sandwich. It was my first act of classroom management.”
Bouncing from school to school, he was able to find his stride in the classroom by telling stories of his childhood as a poor Catholic boy growing up in Limerick, Ireland. “Instead of teaching, I told stories, anything to keep them quiet and in their seats. They thought I was teaching. I thought I was teaching. I was learning,” McCourt writes. McCourt’s advice to his creative writing students was that, “Every moment of your life you are writing. Even in your dreams you are writing.” However, one student replied “Mr. McCourt, you’re lucky. You had that miserable childhood so you have something to write about.”
McCourt, at the end of his talk at the GSE acknowledges the difficulties of being a school teacher: “Teachers somehow have to give up a sense of self-esteem because we are fighting an uphill battle.” This thought is echoed in the Prologue to Teacher Man, “In America, doctors, lawyers, generals, actors, television people and politicians are admired and rewarded; not teachers. Teaching is the downstairs maid of professions.”
McCourt says that “it takes a lot of willpower to stay and engage in that profession called teaching,” because as he writes, “The farther you travel from the classroom the greater your financial and professional rewards.” As a result, according to McCourt, many teachers decide to take posts such as guidance counselors, assistant principals, and other administrative roles. However, McCourt’s reason for staying in the classroom was to tell his stories-a decision that has served him very well indeed.