A third memoir from the author of the huge international bestsellers ‘Angela’s Ashes’ and ‘‘Tis’. In ‘Teacher Man’, Frank McCourt details his illustrious, amusing, and sometimes rather bumpy years as an English teacher in the public high schools of New York City.
Frank McCourt arrived in New York as a young, impoverished and idealistic Irish boy – but who crucially had an American passport, having been born in Brooklyn. He didn't know what he wanted except to stop being hungry and to better himself. On the subway he watched students carrying books. He saw how they read and underlined and wrote things in the margin and he liked the look of this very much. He joined the New York Public Library and every night when he came back from his hotel work he would sit up reading the great novels.
Building his confidence and his determination, he talked his way into NYU and gained a literature degree and so began a teaching career that was to last thirty years, working in New York’s public high schools. Frank estimates that he probably taught 12,000 children during this time and it is on this relationship between teacher and student that he reflects in ‘Teacher Man’, the third in his series of memoirs.
The New York high school is a restless, noisy and unpredictable place and Frank believes that it was his attempts to control and cajole these thousands of children into learning and achieving something for themselves that turned him into a writer. At least once a day someone would put up their hand and shout ‘Mr. McCourt, Mr. McCourt, tell us about Ireland, tell us about how poor you were…’ Through sharing his own life with these kids he learnt the power of narrative storytelling, and out of the invaluable experience of holding 12,000 people’s attention came ‘Angela’s Ashes’.
Frank McCourt was a legend in such schools as Stuyvesant high school – long before he became the figure he is now, he would receive letters from former students telling him how much his teaching influenced and inspired them – and now in ‘Teacher Man’ he shares his reminiscences of those thirty years as well as revealing how they led to his own success with ‘Angela's Ashes’ and ‘’Tis’.
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‘McCourt’s gift for mellifluous storytelling means that his tales
of jubilation and disillusionment never disappoint.’ Daily Telegraph
‘Warm, anecdotal, life-affirming stuff.’ Sunday Times
‘McCourt says teachers are undervalued but maybe if there were more like him the complaint wouldn't arise.’ Mail on Sunday
PRAISE FOR ANGELA’S ASHES:
‘Brilliant and seductive.’
THOMAS KENEALLY, author of Schindler’s List
‘Writing in prose that’s pictorial and tactile, lyrical but streetwise, Mr McCourt does for the town of Limerick what the young Joyce did for Dublin: he conjures the place for us with such intimacy that we feel we’ve walked its streets and crawled its pubs.’ New York Times
PRAISE FOR ‘TIS:
‘’Tis is a work of great charm and power, perhaps even more so than its predecessor.’ Mail on SundayFrom the Author:
Louise Tucker talks to Frank McCourt
How did the experience of writing Teacher Man differ from that of writing Angela’s Ashes and ’Tis?
Teacher Man was much harder to write. I think that, perhaps, I was more self-conscious now that I was a big shot, bestselling author. And the stuff did not flow that easily. I was dealing with thirty years of teaching and thousands of students and there was a heavy process of selection.
You end Teacher Man saying ‘I’ll try’. Now that you have tried, and succeeded, how do you feel about that man on the threshold of his ‘second act’?
The main thing is I’m a late bloomer and that means I’m having a hell of a second act.
You spent years teaching creative writing and yet not writing. Did you find that frustrating?
All through my teaching years I tried to write. I filled notebooks with ideas and even nibbled at Angela’s Ashes material but I never sustained anything.
Some argue that writing cannot be taught, that MAs and MFAs are a waste of time. Do you think such courses are helpful?
I was a ‘creative writing’ teacher at Stuyvesant High School – but for God’s sake don’t tell anyone as I don’t have much faith in such courses. The aspiring writer would be better off out there suffering.
Teaching is in some ways good training for the life of a writer now, in that it is as much about performance as it is about sitting at a desk. Do you enjoy the public side of being a writer as much as the private?
I enjoy most of the public stuff. At this stage of my life I’m simply recycling my teaching career. The ‘private part’ of writing is hard – especially with Teacher Man.
In Chapter Four you tell your students about your experiences of ‘real work’. Do you think it helped you, in both professions, to have experienced a much harder way of earning a living?
I’m glad I worked on the docks and at various other jobs. It gives you different perspectives on life and, most of all, material. Such experiences help ground one.
One parent in thirty years asks if her child is enjoying school. Enjoyment, a colleague points out, is not the priority for most parents but what, as far as you’re concerned, should a school’s purpose be?
I think a school should work like hell to help young people with their ‘potential’ – whatever that is. It should be a liberating rather than a narrowing place where curiosity is encouraged and fostered. Oh, I could go on.
You describe teaching as the ‘downstairs maid of professions’. Why do you think that many parents, pupils and social commentators have so little respect for it?
People in general look down on teachers the way they regard members of their family: they think they know what teaching is all about when the fact is they don’t have a clue, any more than they know what surgery is all about. Teachers, in my examples, are people who failed in other areas, but that doesn’t take away from those who are gifted, hard-working and committed. Also, many people think teaching is easy. Oh, you simply walk into a classroom and blather and the kids sit and listen. Hell, no.
You frequently mention that ‘no one is forcing you to stay in this miserable underpaid profession’. Why did you stay for thirty years?
I think I stayed because I didn’t want to admit I couldn’t do it and because, the more I did it, the more I liked the job – profession – and the challenge of getting through to the kids.
Is failing to finish your doctorate ever a regret?
If I had earned that doctorate I would have wound up teaching in a college. I might have become a pompous academic and there would have been no Angela’s Ashes.
Often you mention that the ‘farther you travel from the classroom, the greater the financial and professional rewards’. Were you ever tempted?
No, never. Again I would have become a pompous ass with an office.
If you could choose one moment, one student, that epitomized what teaching meant to you, what or who would it be?
I’d choose a negative moment. I barked at a girl who merely questioned the grade I’d given her and I was so mean about it I shocked myself. I learned never to do that again. From the negative came the positive.
What do you miss most about the job? And least?
What I miss most is the exuberance and excitement of the classroom. What I miss least is the claustrophobic atmosphere created by bureaucrats and politicians.
Are you still in touch with any of your students?
I meet former students everywhere. One, Susan Gilman, was recently on the New York Times’ bestseller list with a memoir, Hypocrite in a Pouffy White Dress. She said she owes it all to me. I agreed with her.
The parents called you a fraud for telling stories but the students loved you: how did such conflicting opinions help or hinder your teaching?
I paid little attention to parents. Their ideas of education conflicted with mine. I don’t mean that in any disrespectful way but they worried mostly about grades and I didn’t really give a fiddler’s fart.
How has teaching changed since you left? Are there any changes that you mourn?
Teachers now have to deal with a tsunami of technology that would have driven me out of my mind. I would have had to bar all mobile phones, iPods, etc, from my classroom – and that would have been a great problem
Writing is essentially solitary; teaching social. Do you believe that you weren’t ready for the quiet solitude required to write when you were younger?
When I was younger I wanted the fame and attention that come with publishing so I would have been more interested in the superficial than in the hard grind of private work.
‘You are your material,’ you tell your students and this has been the case for you. Do you think you have exhausted yours now?
Yes, I’m finished with Frank McCourt memoir stuff – unless I draw on it to write a novel.
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