Reading History: Teacher Man by Frank McCourt


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.


Reading History: The Fight for English by David Crystal

One of my favourite poems in the English language is Six O’Clock News by from ‘Unrelated Incidents’ by Tom Leonard. Here it is in all its short, furious glory:

this is thi
six a clock
news thi
man said n
thi reason
a talk wia
BBC accent
iz coz yi
widny wahnt
mi ti talk
aboot thi
trooth wia
voice lik
wanna yoo
scruff. if
a toktaboot
thi trooth
lik wanna yoo
scruff yi
widny thingk
it wuz troo.
jist wanna yoo
scruff tokn.
thirza right
way ti spell
ana right way
to tok it. this
is me tokn yir
right way a
spellin. this
is ma trooth.
yooz doant no
thi trooth
yirsellz cawz
yi canny talk
right. this is
the six a clock
nyooz. belt up.

A deceptively straightforward poem, in its short clipped lines, it is a coruscating riff on the place of accent in how we define class in the English language.

Our accents place us not just geographically, but in Ireland and in Britain, socially and culturally. As a kid, I knew that you made fun of people who went to what was then still a private school, Newtown School in Waterford, by saying the name of the school in the over-exaggerated way that it was imagined those schooled there spoke: Nootaunn. This was reverse accent and language snobbery in action. Knowing for most of my life almost no one who went to the school, I had no idea if they sounded like that, or if that’s how anyone who had ever gone through the gates of that famous Quaker school had ever in fact sounded. But I knew that when talking about Newtown you had to talk about Nootaunn. From early on in life, I learned that how you spoke and sounded impacted how people perceived you. Accent was a giveaway. It allowed others to place you.

When I got to college, I was acutely aware of this and so quickly adopted (and subsequently dropped) a bizarre version of the ‘posh’ Cork accent as a kind of defense mechanism. Language, and all its baggage – dialectical terms, accent –  I was learning in college, continued to be a means of placing and defining you. It sometimes seemed inside of UCC that having the right accent, and having gone to the right school were very important things indeed. Most people probably cared a lot less about my accent and the way I said things than I did, but I was very aware that I didn’t always sound like most of those around me who I met. A poem like The Six O’Clock News helps explain why that is perfectly.

My interest in poetry that took language as it was, in all its weirdness, inconsistency, malleability, that has persisted was sparked in the same years when my accent was more variable thanks to my awareness that in this new social context, among peers from different social backgrounds, my accent placed me – geographically but also socially and culturally. I got to meet some great people in those years who were interested in poetry that was experimental and innovative and playful when it came to spelling, accent, voice, dialects and more – the stuff of language that makes it most interesting. Without them I would have never heard of Tom Leonard, would never have heard or read the Six O’Clock News. Another important factor was studying English in my first year in UCC. Back then, just coming on ten years ago now – as part of First Year English, some of the course was given over to the field of linguistics. We were taught by Elizabeth Okasha. I must confess I don’t remember much about the actual lectures now, but Dr. Okasha’s lectures had one piece of required reading that helped to fundamentally reshape my entire understanding of the English language and was the start of a relationship with a writer which persists to this day. That required reading was The English Language by David Crystal. Although it would in time to come be replaced by The Fight for English as my favourite of Crystal’s books, it was in those lectures, and through this book I first encountered his take on the language. It was one which at the time to me seemed part of the same momentous shift in how I understood what poetry was and could potentially be. But The Fight for English is the David Crystal book which I would most strongly recommend to anyone to read.

Written in the wake of the popularity of Lynn Truss’ Eats, Shoots, & Leaves, Crystal in The Fight for English takes on not just Truss but many who came before her (and it will stand against many grammar obsessives who have surely come in her wake) who want to fix the English language in a particular time and place and say that this way of speaking, writing and using the language is the only correct one. If it is correct, it is because these are the people who wield the power to say what is correct and incorrect in a language – they are, in other words, the powerful; those closest to the centre of power whoo can say that their accent is “neutral” or that yours or mine is “regional”. The arbiters of taste and propriety since the eighteenth century. Luckily, Crystal’s book by taking a long look at the development of English as a language is capable of putting such nonsense to rest. It is vital reading for anyone who understands that language is a system that like all systems can exclude and attack those who do not control its reins. The English language is forever shifting and changing. The diversity of accents, the sheer number of loan words, the dialects of it, all point to the essential truth of Crystal’s book: English belongs to everyone not just self-appointed gate keepers. This truth is not one on which Crystal has ever reneged on in his writing since either, especially when you consider his book TXTNG: D GR8 DB8 which was a serious linguists early attempt to really understand what was happening in the development of text and online speech patterns, rather than dismissing them out of hand as infantile, or worse, illiterate.

The writing of poets like Tom Leonard, and the writing of linguists like David Crystal were vital in helping me understand that my accent, that the wordhoard which I inherited because of the place I was born, was an asset and not a liability. It was a rich social and cultural history in which to play, to discover and relate to my home. That goes not alone for the local but even the national. Without a book like The Fight for English, I would be ill-equipped in many conversations to argue what I always felt to be true. That language is not static. That we do have different voices, different lexicons upon which we call. That the variety to be found in English is part of what makes it so fun to learn, teach and create with. Not alone that, but by thinking about language in this way – who has access to writing it, having their voices heard on the page or through a recording devices – also has huge implications for how we understand the past and how we shape what eventually becomes history.

In the poetry of Tom Leonard, and others like him, once more the enormous condescension of posterity looms large. Such poetry is a pushback against that posterity.  This is something that David Crystal’s The Fight for English has taught me, and with each re-reading of it, continues to remind me of. There are few enough books that I will read in my lifetime from which I will take away so much.

Version: Music and History

Back when I was doing my undergraduate, for my final year dissertation class I was in a group looking at aspects of Irish Diaspora history. My own project was on the impact of Irish emigration on American folk music. In particular, I was concerned with pre-Great Famine migration from Ireland to the United States – by and large this meant Ulster Protestant migration to the Appalachian region. The links between English, Scottish and Irish ballad traditions and those of the Appalachian regions are well-established, although at the time it was revelatory for my historical knowledge – the transformation of music across time and landscape was truly incredible. Ever since then, in the tutorials I give to first year students of twentieth century Irish history, I ask them in one class to examine two separate political traditions in Ireland by examining the texts of the Ulster Solemn League and Covenant and the Proclamation of the Irish Republic; As well as that  I get them to consider representations of these opposing political viewpoints via song. Continue reading “Version: Music and History”