Frank McCourt

Stephen Phillips

I started school in Limerick in 1935. Looking back, it's the waste of talent that hits me. There were hundreds of kids sitting in rows - it's hard to convey how Dickensian it was. You'd sit there at desks with ink wells and write with nibs. We were completely discouraged from any originality. I can't remember any eruptions of laughter, but there were plenty of tremors of fear when a boy would be hauled out of his seat and beaten. My generation was completely cowed. "How many a flower is born to blush unseen", but also to die on the desk of a national school in Ireland.

Most of the teachers whipped us. The only one who had a vision that went beyond the classroom and took in the poverty was "Hoppy"

O'Halloran. We called him Hoppy because he had one leg shorter than the other and hopped when he walked. He was a combination of Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt: lofty and expansive, but compassionate. He started a programme to get boots for the children who had to go barefoot. We went door to door, with our own boots crumbling, selling raffle tickets.

The other teacher who influenced me was completely different. After moving to New York, I was taking night school in Brooklyn to get my masters degree in English literature. Owen Irving Seiden never strayed beyond the subject at hand. He was rigorous, scholarly and demanding. He taught an evening class on Victorian literature and you had to be in the door at 4pm sharp.

Some naive people would ask questions, but he would say, "You don't ask questions." He didn't think any student should impede his lesson plan. If you had questions, he'd say, "see me in my office", but he was much too intimidating for anyone to take him up on it.

He was conservative, always wearing a bow-tie and suit, and had a disregard for popular culture or any laxness creeping into US education. He was always refreshing his teaching, instead of rehashing the same material. I thought I'd like to be like him as a teacher, but it wasn't me. I was already a teacher when I was in his class. I'd started work in Limerick after leaving school in 1943 and worked until I was 19, when I came to New York. I was in the US army from 1949 to 1951, and after that the GI Bill paid for me to go to New York University.

I worked in a bank after graduating and that cured me of any desire to work in an office, leaving me with a horror of being trapped in a 9-to-5 situation. The two things I liked were kids and books, so I went into teaching.

My other favourite teachers have been colleagues in New York schools. They were the best; they had to be. You can't just walk into a high school in New York and lecture; you'd lose the students. You have to dance with them; be a drill sergeant, priest, minister, shoulder to cry on and housekeeper.

Like Toscanini and a master psychologist rolled into one.

I worked in four high schools. One, Seward Park, was a melting pot of nationalities. You had to learn about slowing down, clarity and simplification. Many of the students were still learning English and could be explosive. But they weren't exploding at you; they were angry at their situation. I had to learn compassion.

There were gang wars; fights between the Chinese and the Puerto Ricans.

Knives would be flashing in the corridor. What did I know about this? I was from Limerick!

My experience of school in Ireland taught me how not to teach. You can't fall back on violence or intimidation; it's pointless. It's all about engaging the students. If you teach and you're not learning yourself, you're not teaching; you can't trot out prefabricated lectures. There's something mystical in what goes on in the classroom. There's a chemistry between a teacher and their students.


1930 Born in Brooklyn, New York, to Irish immigrant parents

1935 Family returns to Ireland

1935-43 Attends Leamy's National School, Limerick, Ireland

1943-49 Works as telegram delivery boy

1949 Moves back to New York

1951-53 Serves in US military

1953-57 Studies English literature at New York University

1958-87 Teaches in New York schools

1996 Angela's Ashes, first instalment of autobiography, wins Pulitzer Prize

1999 Film of Angela's Ashes starring Robert Carlyle. Publishes sequel, 'Tis November 2005 Teacher Man, a memoir of his New York teaching career, published by Fourth Estate

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Stephen Phillips

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