On the face of it, nothing could be more boring than 30 years in the classroom. Some 35,000 classes, 12,000 pupils and an Everest of marking suggest at best a life of tedious repetition and continuous struggle against indifferent teenagers. Frank McCourt’s Teacher Man, however, testifies to quite the opposite.
This third volume of his autobiography, which began with the best-selling Angela’s Ashes, chronicles another journey. Like its two predecessors, it begins in hardship and travels to some sort of fruition. It recounts the period from McCourt’s graduation to his departure from the profession. Coyly, however, it refuses to even mention his apotheosis as American Teacher of the Year. Into those 30 years he packs a wealth of inspiration and a fund of stories. What ultimately emerges is not just a teacher but a bard in the classroom. Like Angela’s Ashes, this volume also relies on the stories and anecdotes, the vignettes of students, other teachers and administrators that knit the narrative together. Similarly it too will delight the reader.
In challenging his students, McCourt revels in the power of the simple story and the language that transports it. His students are entranced by tales of his impoverished Irish upbringing and his own stories of interactions with his own students have a parallel attraction. His technique is to find the magic in the mundane and to engage the students both on their own terms and in new territory. For example, faced with a multi-ethnic class, he draws on their own culinary traditions, getting students to bring samples of family dishes. They then learn to write recipes, then progress to the art of the restaurant review, even writing with enthusiasm, precision and originality of the school cafeteria! Sounds tantalisingly simple but all this has a galvanising effect on the class. They soon come to enjoy the power and variety that language has to offer. Other exercises include writing obituaries for other students and excuse notes for historical and mythological figures, with some hilarious effect. And this approach works, as generations of past students bear witness by letter, in the street and in his memory.
The memoir is quite unlike the run-of-the-mill. Despite an over-fondness of lists, McCourt writes close to a stream-of-consciousness. Incidents are retold not because of their chronological importance but because of their relevance to the point of a chapter. This does not confuse. Indeed the style brings the encounters with students to life, adding immediacy and drama to the stories. In the end, the book is less of an autobiography, more of a hymn to creative flair and freedom and a howl of contempt for bureaucratic niceties. Ironically, when faced with so many students over such a long time, it illustrates a deep-seated appreciation of and joy in the individuality of these students.
The book is a sharp insight into the world of the teacher, alone in the classroom with 30 others. The classroom becomes a “place of high drama”. The art of teaching is one man against a class of “ticking bombs” and education the process of transforming fear into freedom. In this teacher’s world, McCourt has little in the way of compliment, with one notable exception, for principals and, especially, bureaucrats. Their involvement in his life was one of petty and intrusive meddling. Then, as now, teachers can expect little in the way of help from the hierarchy. The profession is structured on the basis that the further the teacher goes from the classroom, the greater the reward. It is the acquiescent and the mediocre who travel furthest.
The book is more, however, than just a collection of pedagogical anecdotes. It illuminates a life of service and a struggle for self-identity amid the invasive, haunting after-effect of students and the constraints of bureaucratic small-mindedness. It does, however, also beg one nagging question: after three volumes of autobiography and a lifetime of teaching creative writing, when is McCourt going to turn his talented hand to fiction?…