Class act

Despite feeling inadequate in the classroom, 'Angela's Ashes' memoirist Frank McCourt proved to be an innovative educator.

mccourt book 88 298 (photo credit: )
mccourt book 88 298
(photo credit: )
Teacher Man By Frank McCourt Scribner 258pp., $26 Frank McCourt waited until his seventh decade to publish Angela's Ashes, the mammoth 1996 bestseller that won a Pulitzer and a slew of other prizes. The 2000 follow-up, 'Tis, was a relative letdown - though well-told, the story inevitably lacked the richness and intensity of the first book, which centered on the writer's destitute childhood in Limerick, Ireland. Nearly a decade after the release of Angela's Ashes, McCourt has published a third memoir, this one mostly focused on his teaching career at a variety of public and private schools in his adopted hometown, New York City, where he arrived as a 19-year-old not long after the Second World War. Teacher Man picks up McCourt's life story in 1958, during his teaching debut at McKee Vocational and Technical High School on Staten Island. The author recalls how he was nearly fired on both the first and second days of that initial teaching assignment, a fiasco which set the tone for a good portion of his early career. Much of Teacher Man could be written by anyone who'd spent an extended period teaching in a major US city - assuming that person had a gift for vivid descriptions and poignant dialogue. McCourt ages over the course of the narrative, but his students generally adhere to the standard profile of post-war American teenagers. Easily bored and skeptical of authority, his charges constantly challenge the young teacher to come up with new ways to teach them. The high school classroom is a relentless battle of wits, as McCourt describes, and he must be crafty and resourceful to perform his role as educator successfully. McCourt struggles early in his career with the feeling that he's not qualified to teach, that he's still just a poor Irish kid whose ignorance might be exposed at any moment. But he's also blessed with an attribute his colleagues lack: the distinctive accent that lingers from that accursed Irish childhood. As he discovers quickly enough, memories of his youth are themselves an asset in his teaching, with students showing unexpected interest in their teacher's deprived foreign background. McCourt writes self-effacingly - and no doubt accurately - that students learned to manipulate his storytelling proclivities to eat up classtime, but he also learns to dupe his students into learning something from the memories he passes on. Not, of course, that he'd suggest they view things that way. McCourt's recollections as an educator are generally unexceptional, though they're well-rendered and pleasant enough to picture - the image of McCourt leading a classroom of mostly African American girls to the movies is amusing, and the students' take on the film rather touching. While acknowledging defeats in the classroom and in battles with the occasional vice principal, Teacher Man is to a great extent a catalogue of McCourt's innovations as an educator. In spite of administrative politics and frequent outbursts of adolescent petulance, McCourt clearly valued his connection with his students, and readers will absorb the pride he feels as they move through this memoir. But while McCourt clearly has a soft spot for his teenage charges, the author also captures his sense of them through immigrant eyes. He sympathizes with students from disadvantaged homes in a way most teachers can't, and expresses resentment later in his career at the self-entitlement of students at the competitive private school where he works. He feels a bond with adult students in his night classes on literature, but he also discovers a bit of scorn for those who don't share the commitment to education that drove him after his arrival in New York. While admirably honest in these sections, McCourt goes off course elsewhere in Teacher Man. Sections about a romantic triangle and post-graduate fellowship in Ireland feel disconnected from the rest of the book, the vaguely self-indulgent reveries of a bestselling writer who knows he can publish whatever he wishes. The recollections may have added something in another context, but here serve mostly to interrupt the memoir's otherwise smooth narrative flow. Even with these diversions, however, Teacher Man succeeds in explaining McCourt's warm feelings toward even his most challenging students. Decades of telling stories in the classroom have elevated McCourt's gift into an art, and one can't help but envy the teenagers who spent so much time in the presence of the author during all those years he spent in school in New York.