Long before he was a Pulitzer Prize-winning author, Frank McCourt was a teacher in the New York City schools. Relationships formed with 12,000 mostly teenaged students over 30 years form the basis for his new memoir, Teacher Man. McCourt tells Jacki Lyden about life in the classroom.
Read an excerpt from Teacherman:
If I knew anything about Sigmund Freud and psychoanalysis I'd be able to trace all my troubles to my miserable childhood in Ireland. That miserable childhood deprived me of self-esteem, triggered spasms of self pity, paralyzed my emotions, made me cranky, envious and disrespectful of authority, retarded my development, crippled my doings with the opposite sex, kept me from rising in the world and made me unfit, almost, for human society. How I became a teacher at all and remained one is a miracle and I have to give myself full marks for surviving all those years in the classrooms of New York. There should be a medal for people who survive miserable childhoods and become teachers, and I should be first in line for the medal and whatever bars might be appended for ensuing miseries.
I could lay blame. The miserable childhood doesn't simply happen. It is brought about. There are dark forces. If I am to lay blame it is in a spirit of forgiveness. Therefore, I forgive the following: Pope Pius XII; the English in general and King George VI in particular; Cardinal MacRory, who ruled Ireland when I was a child; the bishop of Limerick, who seemed to think everything was sinful; Eamonn De Valera, former prime minister (Taoiseach) and president of Ireland. Mr. De Valera was a half-Spanish Gaelic fanatic (Spanish onion in an Irish stew) who directed teachers all over Ireland to beat the native tongue into us and natural curiosity out of us. He caused us hours of misery. He was aloof and indifferent to the black and blue welts raised by schoolmaster sticks on various parts of our young bodies. I forgive, also, the priest who drove me from the confessional when I admitted to sins of self-abuse and self-pollution and penny thieveries from my mother's purse. He said I did not show a proper spirit of repentance, especially in the matter of the flesh. And even though he had hit that nail right on the head, his refusal to grant me absolution put my soul in such peril that if I had been flattened by a truck outside the church he would have been responsible for my eternal damnation. I forgive various bullying schoolmasters for pulling me out of my seat by the sideburns, for walloping me regularly with stick, strap and cane when I stumbled over answers in the catechism or when in my head I couldn't divide 937 by 739. I was told by my parents and other adults it was all for my own good. I forgive them for those whopping hypocrisies and wonder where they are at this moment. Heaven? Hell? Purgatory (if it still exists)?
I can even forgive myself, though when I look back at various stages of my life, I groan. What an ass. What timidities. What stupidities. What indecisions and flounderings.
But then I take another look. I had spent childhood and adolescence examining my conscience and finding myself in a perpetual state of sin. That was the training, the brainwashing, the conditioning and it discouraged smugness, especially among the sinning class.
Now I think it time to give myself credit for at least one virtue: doggedness. Not as glamorous as ambition or talent or intellect or charm, but still the one thing that got me through the days and nights.
F. Scott Fitzgerald said that in American lives there are no second acts. He simply did not live long enough. In my case he was wrong.
When I taught in New York City high schools for thirty years no one but my students paid me a scrap of attention. In the world outside the school I was invisible. Then I wrote a book about my childhood and became mick of the moment. I hoped the book would explain family history to McCourt children and grandchildren. I hoped it might sell a few hundred copies and I might be invited to have discussions with book clubs. Instead it jumped onto the best-seller list and was translated into thirty languages and I was dazzled. The book was my second act.
In the world of books I am a late bloomer, a johnny-come-lately, new kid on the block. My first book, Angela's Ashes, was published in 1996 when I was sixty-six, the second, 'Tis, in 1999 when I was sixty-nine. At that age it's a wonder I was able to lift the pen at all. New friends of mine (recently acquired because of my ascension to the best-seller lists) had published books in their twenties. Striplings.
So, what took you so long?
I was teaching, that's what took me so long. Not in college or university, where you have all the time in the world for writing and other diversions, but in four different New York City public high schools. (I have read novels about the lives of university professors where they seemed to be so busy with adultery and academic in-fighting you wonder where they found time to squeeze in a little teaching.) When you teach five high school classes a day, five days a week, you're not inclined to go home to clear your head and fashion deathless prose. After a day of five classes your head is filled with the clamor of the classroom.
I never expected Angela's Ashes to attract any attention, but when it hit the best-seller lists I became a media darling. I had my picture taken hundreds of times. I was a geriatric novelty with an Irish accent. I was interviewed for dozens of publications. I met governors, mayors, actors. I met the first President Bush and his son the governor of Texas. I met President Clinton and Hillary Rodham Clinton. I met Gregory Peck. I met the Pope and kissed his ring. Sarah, Duchess of York, interviewed me. She said I was her first Pulitzer Prize winner. I said she was my first duchess. She said, Ooh, and asked the cameraman, Did you get that? Did you get that? I was nominated for a Grammy for the spoken word and nearly met Elton John. People looked at me in a different way. They said, Oh, you wrote that book, This way, please, Mr. McCourt, or Is there anything you'd like, anything? A woman in a coffee shop squinted and said, I seen you on TV. You must be important. Who are you? Could I have your autograph? I was listened to. I was asked for my opinion on Ireland, conjunctivitis, drinking, teeth, education, religion, adolescent angst, William Butler Yeats, literature in general. What books are you reading this summer? What books have you read this year? Catholicism, writing, hunger. I spoke to gatherings of dentists, lawyers, ophthalmologists and, of course, teachers. I traveled the world being Irish, being a teacher, an authority on misery of all kinds, a beacon of hope to senior citizens everywhere who always wanted to tell their stories.
They made a movie of Angela's Ashes. No matter what you write in America there is always talk of The Movie. You could write the Manhattan telephone directory, and they'd say, So, when is the movie?
If I hadn't written Angela's Ashes I would have died begging, Just one more year, God, just one more year because this book is the one thing I want to do in my life, what's left of it. I never dreamed it would be a best-seller. I hoped it would sit on booksellers' shelves while I lurked in the bookshop and watched beautiful women turn pages and shed the occasional tear. They'd buy the book, of course, take it home, loll on divans and read my story while sipping herbal tea or a fine sherry. They'd order copies for all their friends.
In 'Tis I wrote about my life in America and how I became a teacher. After it was published I had the nagging feeling I'd given teaching short shrift. In America, doctors, lawyers, generals, actors, television people and politicians are admired and rewarded. Not teachers. Teaching is the downstairs maid of professions. Teachers are told to use the service door or go around the back. They are congratulated on having ATTO (All That Time Off). They are spoken of patronizingly and patted, retroactively, on their silvery locks. Oh, yes, I had an English teacher, Miss Smith, who really inspired me. I'll never forget dear old Miss Smith. She used to say that if she reached one child in her forty years of teaching it would make it all worthwhile. She'd die happy. The inspiring English teacher then fades into gray shadows to eke out her days on a penny-pinching pension, dreaming of the one child she might have reached. Dream on, teacher. You will not be celebrated.
You think you'll walk into the classroom, stand a moment, wait for silence, watch while they open notebooks and click pens, tell them your name, write it on the board, proceed to teach.
On your desk you have the English course of study provided by the school. You'll teach spelling, vocabulary, grammar, reading comprehension, composition, literature.
You can't wait to get to the literature. You'll have lively discussions about poems, plays, essays, novels, short stories. The hands of one hundred and seventy students will quiver in the air and they'll call out, Mr. McCourt, me, me, I wanna say something.
You hope they'll want to say something. You don't want them to sit gawking while you struggle to keep a lesson alive.
You'll feast on the bodies of English and American literature. What a time you'll have with Carlyle and Arnold, Emerson and Thoreau. You can't wait to get to Shelley, Keats and Byron and good old Walt Whitman. Your classes will love all that romanticism and rebellion, all that defiance. You'll love it yourself, because, deep down and in your dreams, you're a wild romantic. You see yourself on the barricades.
Principals and other figures of authority passing in the hallways will hear sounds of excitement from your room. They'll peer through the door window in wonder at all the raised hands, the eagerness and excitement on the faces of these boys and girls, these plumbers, electricians, beauticians, carpenters, mechanics, typists, machinists.
You'll be nominated for awards: Teacher of the Year, Teacher of the Century. You'll be invited to Washington. Eisenhower will shake your hand. Newspapers will ask you, a mere teacher, for your opinion on education. This will be big news: A teacher asked for his opinion on education. Wow. You'll be on television.
Imagine: A teacher on television.
They'll fly you to Hollywood, where you'll star in movies about your own life. Humble beginnings, miserable childhood, problems with the church (which you bravely defied), images of you solitary in a corner, reading by candlelight: Chaucer, Shakespeare, Austen, Dickens. You there in the corner blinking with your poor diseased eyes, bravely reading till your mother pulls the candle away from you, tells you if you don't stop the two eyes will fall out of your head entirely. You plead for the candle back, you have only a hundred pages left in Dombey and Son, and she says, No, I don't want to be leading you around Limerick with people asking how you went blind when a year ago you were kicking a ball with the best of them.
You say yes to your mother because you know the song:
A mother's love is a blessing
No matter where you go
Keep her while you have her
You'll miss her when she's gone.
Besides, you could never talk back to a movie mother played by one of those old Irish actresses, Sarah Allgood or Una O'Connor, with their sharp tongues and their suffering faces. Your own mother had a powerful hurt look, too, but there's nothing like seeing it on the big screen in black and white or living color.
Your father could be played by Clark Gable except that a) he might not be able to handle your father's North of Ireland accent and b) it would be a terrible comedown from Gone With the Wind, which, you remember, was banned in Ireland because, it is said, Rhett Butler carried his own wife, Scarlett, up the stairs and into bed, which upset the film censors in Dublin and caused them to ban the film entirely. No, you'd need someone else as your father because the Irish censors would be watching closely and you'd be badly disappointed if the people in Limerick, your city, and the rest of Ireland were denied the opportunity of seeing the story of your miserable childhood and subsequent triumph as teacher and movie star.
But that would not be the end of the story. The real story would be how you eventually resisted the siren call of Hollywood, how after nights of being dined, wined, feted and lured to the beds of female stars, established and aspiring, you discovered the hollowness of their lives, how they poured out their hearts to you on various satin pillows, how you listened, with twinges of guilt, while they expressed their admiration for you, that you, because of your devotion to your students, had become an idol and an icon in Hollywood, how they, the ravishing female stars, established and aspiring, regretted how they had gone astray, embracing the emptiness of their Hollywood lives when, if they gave it all up, they could rejoice daily in the integrity of teaching the future craftsmen, tradesmen and clerk-typists of America. How it must feel, they would say, to wake up in the morning, to leap gladly from the bed, knowing that before you stretched a day in which you'd do God's work with the youth of America, content with your meager remuneration, your real reward the glow of gratitude in the eager eyes of your students as they bear gifts from their grateful and admiring parents: cookies, bread, homemade pasta and the occasional bottle of wine from the backyard vines of Italian families, the mothers and fathers of your one hundred and seventy students at McKee Vocational and Technical High School, Borough of Staten Island, in the City of New York.
Copyright © 2005 by Green Peril Corp.