Teaching as triumph

16 April 2009
The Daily Telegraph
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It is impossible to read Frank McCourt’s new memoir, Teacher Man, about his life as a teacher in New York, without the incessant rain of Ireland drizzling into one’s thoughts.

McCourt’s first book, Angela’s Ashes, published when he was 66, won the Pulitzer Prize, has sold millions of copies throughout the world, was turned into a successful Hollywood movie, and has astonished and moved anyone who has read it. In it, McCourt writes in the most luminous prose about his poverty-stricken but bizarrely inspiring childhood in Ireland. His mother, Angela, brought up the family while enduring the vicissitudes of a drunken husband, the deaths of three children, and the barbarous edicts of a repressive Catholic church. At one point, she was reduced to begging for food and clothing.

McCourt survived these horrors and emigrated to New York where he scraped a living doing menial jobs. Later, he was drafted into the United States Army: a story which he tells in the engaging but less magical sequel, Tis.

His escape from such a terrible upbringing and numerous hardships as a young man, means that when he takes a solid teaching job in this new book, the reader feels that it is a remarkable triumph. This is why this memoir about teaching is unlike any other I have read: relatively mundane events and incidents shine against the backdrop of that pathetic, abused child.

In Teacher Man, McCourt recounts the story of his travails and triumphs during four decades of teaching in the New York public school system. He taught teenagers and adults in four high schools: two working-class schools and two more middle-class ones. He estimates that in all he taught 12,000 pupils. Being imaginative, sensitive and well-read, he struggled with the robotic authorities and irate parents who suggested at various points in his career that he should find another job.

As a teacher in the British system, I was fascinated to learn that during the 1950s and 1960s the American education boards, for all their backward thinking, put motivating the students at the heart of the curriculum; an injunction which is sadly lacking in most of the school policy documents which are issued in Britain today. It was this imperative which forced McCourt to come up with some of his most innovative ideas, such as getting the pupils to write a suicide note in response to a depressing poem, cooking their own food to improve their vocabularies, chanting recipes and obscene nursery rhymes to stimulate their imaginations, and relating many of the set texts to their own lives so that they could see literature’s true significance.

The high point of McCourt’s teaching career was his time at Stuyvesant High School, perhaps the most respected state-run school in New York. Here he flourished because he was allowed by the enlightened authorities to teach what he wanted.

There is nothing hugely original about the stories that McCourt tells here. If you had not read Angela’s Ashes and Tis then Teacher Man would be unexceptional. But if you have, then the book is transformed.

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