Frank McCourt burst into the literary scene with Angela’s Ashes, his poignant memoir of a hardscrabble childhood in Limerick, Ireland. The current book is the third in the trilogy that included ‘Tis, McCourt’s portrait of his early years in New York City. Teacher Man (the title refers to the way he was addressed by his students) details the author’s jump into the frying pan that is New York’s public school system, his problems with authority, and finally his development of a teaching style that dovetailed very well with his students’ backgrounds.
McCourt is not your standard public school teacher. His methods were developed very likely as a defensive measure. Consider what he says about teaching:
“In universities you can lecture from your crumbling notes. In public
high schools you’d never get away with it. American teenagers
are experts in the tricks of teachers, and if you try to hoodwink them
they’ll bring you down.”
So, in teaching writing, McCourt has his students write an excuse note from Adam or Eve to God instead of building their vocabulary with seldom-used words such as “usufruct” or “condign,” encourages sing-a-longs featuring recipe ingredients as lyrics, and even takes a noisy group to see a Broadway play, much to the chagrin of passersby. His unorthodox methods succeed in getting his students engaged in the learning process, which is often a challenge given their ethnic mix (Puerto Ricans, Asian immigrants, and youth from various Caribbean countries) and their indigence.
McCourt adopts a wry, often lackadaisical tone throughout the memoir. While the tone serves well to establish the uniqueness of the social milieu of New York schools, it tends to grate at times. Surely, amidst all the cynicism about education (McCourt even makes a short detour to be critical of college education, in which capacity he taught for a year) and disdain of authority, he has to see the impact that he had on many students. Even this is reported flippantly, which is a shame, because the achievements often get lost in the morass of negativity.
The book is, nevertheless, an engaging portrait of a gifted teacher set loose in a system where high school education is seen as merely delaying the inevitable career path of hair dressing or nail styling. It also puts closure to what McCourt started in his first book, an amazing, “truth-is-stranger-than fiction” account of a miserable childhood that somehow, luckily had a great ending.