A teacher's hard lessons
Frank McCourt recalls the challenges of New York City classrooms
Considering the pain and suffering he experienced at the hands of no-nonsense headmasters during his Catholic school days in Limerick, Ireland, it's a wonder even to Frank McCourt that he went on to spend three decades as a high school English teacher in the New York City school system. Had he not, late in life, written Angela's Ashes, for which he won the Pulitzer Prize and became, in his words, "mick of the moment," he would have slipped, upon retirement, from anonymity to obscurity: just another faceless, voiceless foot soldier on the frontlines of illiteracy. Today, the world seeks the insights and opinions for which, as a mere teacher, he was never asked.
"I think becoming a teacher was the craziest thing I could have done," McCourt says by phone from New York. " I would have been quite happy in an office somewhere, nine to five, although that would have driven me crazy looking at the clock. But I wouldn't have cared about what I was doing. There would have been no challenge. Going into the classroom was a mighty challenge." Submitted as proof: Teacher Man, the final book in his autobiographical trilogy (with Angela's Ashes and 'Tis), a more-bitter-than-sweet look back at age 75 on a teaching career about which McCourt has decidedly mixed feelings. Here, McCourt takes to task bumbling administrators, callous instructors and an educational system that seems perpetually intent on doing everything but educating. Suffice to say, this is no Up the Down Staircase.
What McCourt always wanted to do, he says, was write. But by the time he returned to America at age 19, his impoverished Irish childhood had shattered his confidence and left him with minimal expectations.
"The lowest! The lowest! I never expected to go to college. I was ready to settle for some low-level job, clerk in a bank or insurance company, anything. I would have made a great elevator operator or something like that," he says. "You get out (of poverty) but you don't get out; it's with you for the rest of your life unless you're very conscious and you go on and study what it was and look at the damage that was done and you remedy it. But I wasn't like that." In Teacher Man, McCourt describes how, fresh out of New York University, he was almost fired his first day of teaching at McKee Vo-Tech on Staten Island for intercepting and eating a flying baloney sandwich. His second day, he triggered calls from angry parents for a classroom comment about friendship with sheep. Just showing up for work in those Blackboard Jungle days took every available ounce of will.
"I had absolute dread similar to what I felt as a kid going to school in Ireland," he recalls. "We went to school in a state of terror because you never knew which way the schoolmaster would jump; you never knew what you didn't know and of course he would ask you what you didn't know and then he would pounce on you and drag you out of your seat and knock you around the room. Kids here complain about going to school but we had reason to be terrified. Our knees would knock." McCourt soon learned to use his lilting accent and natural storytelling gift to capture and hold the attention of a classroom full of adolescents. His techniques were admittedly unconventional; he once assigned students to write their mother's favorite recipes, then bring the finished products to a class potluck lunch in the park. By his estimation, it took him 15 years to figure out how to actually teach with authority.
"They knew I was a novice and I think they gave me a break, mainly because of my accent and my stupid inability to do anything right," he says. " Except that I would make an occasional breakthrough, which consisted of me being human and honest, and that's what carried me along for the next 15 years, going from McKee to Fashion Industries to Seward Park and Stuyvesant, which was heaven." The harder he worked, the more he resented the school administrators with their private offices, secretaries and leisure time.
"It's a big racket, they get so many benefits," he says. "The real hardest workers in the system are the people in the classroom. It's the only profession where you're paid more for not doing it! And there are the peripheral jobs: walking the hallways, checking the lavatories, supervising the cafeteria. This is demeaning, and you only do this to teachers. You don't expect a surgeon to mop the floor in the operating room, but that's the equivalent of what teachers have to do." If he had it to do over again, would he go into teaching? Probably not.
"I suppose in the back of my head the thing I always wanted to do was write, but write what? I didn't know. Nobody told me you had to find your own style; I wanted to be Hemingway or Sean O'Casey. In retrospect, I would have thrown caution to the winds and become a busboy and lived cheaply and repaired to my attic and struggled with my writing, but I didn't know enough. And I certainly wasn't going to write about my life; that was the last thing on my mind, to write about this poverty. The shame; it was the shame. But the opposite prevails in American life, which is, this is your material so get into it, buster. Which is what I did."
Does Teacher Man truly mark the end of his memoirs? "Yeah, that's it," McCourt says with finality. "If you call me next year, you won't find me talking about myself. I want to write a novel that has nothing to do with me; maybe the ideal me, a debonair buccaneer lover of the ages, a man who defies the Vatican and the White House, something like that. Maybe I'm entering my epic period!"
Jay MacDonald writes professionally in Oxford, Mississippi.