On Frank McCourt’s first day as a teacher, in March 1958, one boy threw his paper lunch bag at another.
Not sure what to do, McCourt picked up the bag and ate the bologna sandwich inside. The principal caught and rebuked him, but he got the class under control.
That bit of instinctive improvisation set the tone for McCourt’s 30 years of trial and error in New York City classrooms, which he details in his new memoir, “Teacher Man.” The interaction between the author and his students is often simultaneously hilarious and heart-wrenching.
The memoir is McCourt’s third. In “Angela’s Ashes,” which made him famous and earned him a Pulitzer Prize, he detailed his childhood in Brooklyn and the slums of Limerick, Ireland. In “‘Tis,” he wrote about his life in the United States, including his time as a teacher in New York public schools.
Now McCourt fleshes out his teaching career, giving a more complete portrait of what happened in his classrooms, where he taught students black and white, rich and poor, Jewish, Italian, Korean.
Parts of the book will be redundant for readers of McCourt’s other two books, particularly “‘Tis.” But on its own, “Teacher Man” is a compelling narrative about the challenges, insecurities and triumphs that come with being an educator.
At McKee Vocational and Technical High School in Staten Island, N.Y., McCourt learned quickly that to earn his students’ loyalty, he couldn’t report their bad behavior to their parents, who might beat them for it.
Instead of punishing the kids for forged notes about why they missed class, McCourt collected the notes for a writing exercise in which they had to compose fictional excuses that might be written by their future children, or by draft dodgers (this was during the Vietnam War), or by Adam and Eve.
It was an inspired lesson, and one that might not be possible in public high school English classrooms today, where teachers have far less control over what they teach.
McCourt spends about one-third of the book (which is shorter than his others) telling us about his background. Although his personal stories are interesting, I sometimes found myself wanting to rush through them to get back to the classroom scenes, where he does a masterly job re-creating dialogue the way kids really talk, ethnic accents and all.
Along the way, McCourt bluntly acknowledges his faults, failings and insecurity as a teacher and as a person. He doesn’t sugar-coat his conduct when it was wrong – for example, when he yanked a student’s foot, knocking him off balance, to prove his authority to the class.
His experiences at vocational high schools and New York’s elite Stuyvesant High School highlight society’s vastly different expectations for poor and middle-class students. And McCourt followed the all-too-common pattern of teachers who started as rookies in schools filled with poor kids and moved as veterans to schools serving those who were more affluent.
The book shows the enormous personal hardships – from parents dying to mothers fighting a drug dealer – that distract students from learning, as well as the huge amount of class time spent dealing with those issues, and the behavior problems they often cause.
McCourt, too, brought personal distractions to the classroom, and he describes his struggle to keep them from hurting his students, particularly as his marriage was dissolving.
Over time, he learned to let teaching take him away from the outside world, and his unconventional lessons in creative writing class transported Stuyvesant students from their programmed lives.
The lessons of “Teacher Man” aren’t groundbreaking. But, with humor and compassion, the book captures the everyday joys and agonies that come with being a high school student, and the connection thousands of students had with a teacher trying to help them through.
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