I had the pleasure of hearing Frank McCourt give a talk in the Festival Theatre at Stratford about five years ago, probably around the time he was beginning to rough out the plan for Teacher Man. This would be my guess because he didn’t talk much about either Angela’s Ashes or ‘Tis on that occasion. Instead, he stood behind a spare podium on the theatres’ main stage and he talked about writing and teaching, and how the stuff that you store up from your youth becomes part of the story you tell about yourself.
McCourt honed his stories during decades of teaching in the schools of New York City. That is why his books finally got written in the first place, once he had retired and had the time to answer the challenge his students had often given him.
There was material about his teaching career in 'Tis, but McCourt wasn’t happy with it. “After it was published I had the nagging feeling I’d given teaching short shrift,” he writes in the opening pages of this book, and he had clearly digested that feeling before that afternoon at Stratford.
His presentation that day was a mixture of wry reminiscences and a pep talk. On the one hand he laid into departments of education everywhere and how they get in the way of the job, which he said is nearly impossible anyway a lot of the time, and on the other he made it sound like the highest calling on earth.
To read or listen to Teacher Man (I highly recommend the latter, by the way) you get the feeling that teaching is quite often about survival. It begins with McCourt facing a class of reluctant learners in a situation that would have daunted Gabe Kaplan back when he was facing John Travolta and the Sweathogs on “Welcome Back, Kotter”. For McCourt, learning to be survive and be comfortable in the classroom are essentials that just doesn’t get taught at teacher’s college. If you don’t master these essentials, you won’t be able to get anything else done.
“You have to be selfish,” he writes near the end of the book. “The airlines tell you if oxygen fails you are to put on your mask first, even if your first instinct is to save the child.”
McCourt, who had fallen in love with English while listening to broadcasts of Shakespeare’s plays through open windows while but a ragamuffin lad in Limerick, wanted to be a teacher. This came after a stint in the US Armed Forces and period of time as a dock labourer. He worked his way up to it by degrees (sorry about that). Not a great student himself, handicapped by the lifelong inferiority complex born of a poverty stricken Irish Catholic childhood which did not include graduating from high school, he nevertheless made it to a Masters in Education, which qualified him to be at the front of the classrooms in several vocational high schools. In time he made the rounds of the teacher-on-call jobs in the city of New York, and finally ended his career happily teaching creative writing at Stuyvesant, one of the better high schools.
It was a struggle, a task which he often felt he was not up to. One of the ways he tamed the kids was to tell them tales of his own youth, of where he had come from and how he had got to where he was. Having seen the success which the published versions of these tales have had, it is easy to imagine that many of his students were captivated by them.
Apparently they were also captivated by some of the ideas that he had for creative writing exercises, some of which I may try out myself.
There are other things. McCourt struggled with academia as well, making an unsuccessful attempt to get his doctorate, while exorcising some of his personal demons by taking the course at Trinity College in Dublin, a place he had seen as a boy, but had thought he would never have the courage to enter in person.
The last thing one of his students told him on the his very last day in class was the catalyst that led to Angela’s Ashes, the Pulitzer Prize, two more books and the second, very successful act of his life: “Hey, Mr. McCourt, you should write a book.”
“I’ll try,” he said.