As with other posts in this series, I want to focus not on the book which made Frank McCourt so famous, but one of the books that the success of that book enabled him to write. Most people will have some passing familiarity with McCourt’s autobiographical memoir of his life in Limerick, Angela’s Ashes published in 1996. Many will know it, if not from the book, than certainly from the 1999 film adaptation by the same name.
Following the success of the book and the movie, McCourt produced two more books: ‘Tis: A memoir published the same year as the film came out and Teacher Man which followed in 2005. It is to the last of these three books to which I want to turn my attention.
I was young and impressionable when first reading this book, and was figuring out who or what I thought I might want to be. I was 17 when reading this, and it details McCourt’s life in the main around the time he was about 27, only ten years older than me. Now that I am roughly the same age as McCourt in Teacher Man and having, in no small part I think having settled on becoming a teacher of sorts myself because of reading this book, I find it even funnier than when I first read it.
As anyone who tries to write a memoir, but who is, by the normal measure of things, no one particularly important, McCourt manages to make himself his greatest subject. Indeed, so compulsive is his need to tell his story that he is scolded for this very act by a mother at a parent teacher meeting:
See? she said. That’s what I mean. I ask you a simple question an’ you give me the story of your life. That’s what you wanna watch, Mr McCurd. These kids don’t need to know the life story of every teacher in the school. I went to the nuns. They wouldn’t give you the time of day.
The book is especially interesting now, as I say, for having stood in front of classes of people and tried to teach them. Although the bulk of my experience has been in college, teaching first and second year history students doesn’t strike me in some certain fundamentals as being all that different from what McCourt, and other teacher friends I know, have experienced. The book is divided into three parts and the first part ‘It’s A Long Road to Pedagogy’ details McCourt’s early years as a teacher figuring out how to deal with all the things that the pedagogists fail to teach about:
Professors of education at New York University never lectured on how to handle flying-sandwich situations. They talked about theories and philosophies of education, about moral and ethical imperatives, about the necessity of dealing with the whole child, the gestalt, if you don’t mind, the child’s felt needs, but never about critical moments in the classroom.
McCourt worked for thirty years teaching English, a long time when contrasted with his four years of education training at NYU. Like most teachers, he acknowledges that theory and philosophies of education are important, but they don’t teach you everything. I have tutored and lectured in university and taught English as a foreign and second language to adults. Knowing, understanding and using pedagogical theory is important and ought not to be dismissed but McCourt knows, like many experienced teachers, that classroom management is the key. He also knows that you are more than merely a teacher. While he writes that “Instead of teaching, I told stories. Anything to keep quiet and in their seats. They thought I was teaching. I thought I was teaching. I was learning. And you call yourself a teacher?”, he goes on to say that
I didn’t call myself anything. I was more than a teacher. And less. In the high school classroom you are a drill sergeant, a rabbi, a shoulder to cry on, a disciplinarian, a singer, a low-level scholar, a clerk, a referee, a clown, a counselor, a dress-code enforcer, a conductor, an apologist, a philosopher, a collaborator, a tap dancer, a politician, a therapist, a fool, a traffic cop, a priest, a mother-father-brother-sister-uncle-aunt, a bookkeeper, a critic, a psychologist, the last straw.
He is both hopeful and cynical about the profession of teaching. Sometimes he clearly hates the place and the job. “There are days I’d love to walk out of here, slam the door behind me, tell the principal to shove this job up his arse, head down the hill to the ferry, sail to Manhattan, walk the streets…” This is what is best about this book. It is as good a memoir of the business of teaching as I’ve come across. It is honest, and it is at times absolutely hilarious. While I’m sure it’s message left some bearing on me when first reading it, re-reading it a decade or so later, I recognise far more in it than I did, or could have then. Perhaps one of its key values of reading it at a young age was that it gave some insight into how the teacher looked at us while we were still in school. It also helped me to grasp the idea that teachers were people too. Human, all too human, very often. But as McCourt notes himself
Facing dozens of teenagers every day brings you down to earth. At eight a.m. they don’t care how you feel… There they are and there you are with your headache, your indigestion, echoes of your last quarrel with your spouse, lover, landlord… You couldn’t sleep last night… They’re looking at you. You cannot hide. They’re waiting. What are we doing today, teacher? The paragraph?
Teaching isn’t easy. And there’s no glory, and certainly no money in it. And there’s a lot less time off than people think. Teaching is bloody hard work. And McCourt’s book captures its highs, lows and its doldrums with great style and flair, with real wit and a deep understanding of what makes teachers, students, principals and parents tick.