TEACHER MAN: A Memoir
By Frank McCourt
Scribner. 258 pp. $26
In-class essay test: If there are 6.2 million teachers in the United States, how many copies of the third installment of Frank McCourt's memoirs, Teacher Man, will be sold this holiday season? State your thesis and support it with relevant passages from the text. Consider pros and cons. Use at least five vocabulary words. (Write neatly in ink!)
From what McCourt says in this beguiling, moving, troubling story about teaching English in the New York public school system, we might assume he never burdened his students with anything so pedestrian as an in-class essay test. His popular courses -- particularly at McKee Vocational in Staten Island, where he began in 1958, and at the prestigious Stuyvesant High School, where he finished 30 years later -- sound as if they consisted entirely of anecdotes about his life in Ireland and stunts with marginal educational value. But that may be a touch o' blarney.
Still, it's easy to believe him when he claims, "They flocked to my classes. The room was packed. They sat on windowsills." Being one of his students sounds like a blast. The mere mortals who taught down the hall must have felt the oxygen being sucked out of their rooms. It's hard to say, though, since no other teacher makes a substantial appearance in this record of three decades in school. One, Pam Sheldon, gets a walk-on to deliver this single line: "Why don't they just let him teach in Yankee Stadium?" I sense a touch of bitterness in that question, but McCourt passes it along only to show us (again) "how popular I was."
If Teacher Man weren't so damn entertaining, this would be unbearable. But there you have the problem of his loosely structured memoir: McCourt manages to celebrate high school English teaching without disturbing the most pernicious misconception about the profession: that unlike algebra, French, chemistry or history, English is essentially the study of a needy teacher's personality.
Desperate to hold his students' interest but ill-equipped to do so with the deadly curriculum he's been given, he starts telling them stories instead. "My life saved my life," he says. With that charming Irish accent and the material he spun so marvelously in his Pulitzer Prize-winning debut, Angela's Ashes (1996), he quickly finds he can keep 35 kids captivated.
Us too. He is, after all, a master raconteur, even in this meta-memoir form that involves telling stories about telling stories. (Teacher Man is relatively free of the mawkish self-pity and faux naivete that marred his second book, 'Tis, in 1999.) We hear relatively little about his life outside the classroom, except that it was lonely and hounded by a sense of failure: His marriage dissolves in a paragraph; his daughter makes a cameo; his dissertation dies in a few pages. Most of the anecdotes here catch him in a cold sweat between bored students and humorless administrators: During his oral certification exam, he tells the professors that he would ask children studying a Santayana poem to write a suicide note. While being observed by the principal during his teacher test, he allows a girl to expound emotionally on amputee sex. On his first nervous week in front of his own class, a fight breaks out, he eats a student's sandwich, and he makes a joke about bestiality. The principal is not amused -- but we are.
Like the most popular, undemanding English teacher at every school (and if you're a student or a teacher, you know who he is), McCourt protests too much that he wishes he could be more demanding, more strict, more dedicated to driving students through boring material, but he just can't, and so he's doomed -- that Irish luck! -- to being taken advantage of, to being considered "too easy." And, as we all know, "There's no respect for easy teachers."
But what McCourt wants more than respect, more even than seeing his students learn to read more analytically and write more persuasively, is for them to like him. It's a preoccupation that runs through the book, and his naked confession of this anxiety goes a long way toward winning us over. But still, despite the claim that he eventually learned to use his stories of hardship in Ireland "to connect [students] with the likes of the Wife of Bath, Tom Sawyer, Holden Caulfield, Romeo and his reincarnation in West Side Story," we never see much of those crucial connections in this memoir, in spite of its tight focus on his classroom experience. Instead, the lessons we remember -- and I suspect the ones his students remember -- involve reading cookbooks to musical accompaniment or picnicking in the park. As deeply as I abhor the test-driven atmosphere that's turning schools into reenactments of Hard Times, I couldn't shake my skepticism of the antics that McCourt celebrates. Charming students with your personal life is one way to lead them into the wisdom, beauty and inspiration of literature, but for the teacher this is such an intoxicating, addictive method that it's hard to keep the real destination clearly in mind.
Perhaps the applicability of McCourt's approach is an argument best left in the teachers' lounge, where his entertaining memoir should be discussed with particular relish. As a former English teacher, I kept reading favorite passages to my wife, but as a current English teacher, she was too buried in freshman papers to listen. If you're not in education, open your books to page 1 now; the rest of you, put this on your summer reading list. (Just 134 more school days!) At the very least, McCourt has produced a collection of aphorisms that will grace classroom posters till the last red pen runs dry. ("You'd be better off as a cop. At least you'd have a gun or a stick to defend yourself. A teacher has nothing but his mouth.") And at most, he's described the teacher we all wish we'd had. *
Ron Charles is a senior editor of Book World.