Yes Frank, but what did they learn?
Self-pity mars a bestselling author's account of his teaching days, says David Buckley
At the beginning of Frank McCourt's first lesson as a newly qualified teacher in New York, a sandwich lands at his feet. It's quite a sandwich - "thick baloney...drizzled with olive oil and charged with a tongue-dazzling relish" - a sandwich which represents the rich variety of cultures he'll grapple with in Manhattan, Brooklyn and Staten Island for the next 30 years. But the young McCourt picks it off the floor and eats it, thereby claiming centre stage in the classroom, and honing a style of teaching which belongs to the charismatic inspirational tradition rather than the lesson-plan and learning-objectives approach.
To a reviewer who's been teaching English for 33 years, Teacher Man is about as alluring as Wuthering Heights would have sounded if Emily had called it "Things go Wrong on the Moors", but it emerges that "teacher man"
is the way McCourt's pupils addressed him. And what pupils think of him is a major preoccupation in this account of a career which covered five high schools, a college, and several sackings.
It's a major preoccupation because for 15 years McCourt does not think he's much good. He scrapes through his teacher's examination, feels haunted by principals who think he's neglecting the basics, and struggles to hold his classes' attention. The style of teaching he finds does hold their attention is based on telling stories about himself. Colleagues warn him that students only get him talking to avoid doing any work, but he still treads the primrose path towards the Pulitzer Prize by rehearsing stories he later makes into Angela's Ashes, the tale of a desperately poor childhood in Limerick published when he was 66 (and apparently better at titles).
In Angela's Ashes, the prose rocked. McCourt produced a kind of white Irish blues, riffing in and out of comedy, pathos and lyricism with a chameleon prose which could shape shift from description to dialogue to narrative with ease. The prose is still masterfully handled in Teacher Man, McCourt's third book. (He touched on his teaching years in 'Tis, the middle book, and later decided there was more to say about them.) Here, scenes from the classroom dissolve into stories about his childhood, an earlier life in New York dockland, embarrassing sexual encounters and his failing first marriage.
But whereas Angela's Ashes was energised by the bleakness of a child's circumstances amid a comedy cast of eccentric and accident-prone characters, the problem with the first two-thirds of Teacher Man is that the author's hapless Lucky Jim persona becomes tedious and self-pitying. As a teacher, he's not looking at how well his students are learning, but at how well he's doing. The older McCourt gives his younger self a stiff talking-to: "Stop mumbling. Speak up. Stop putting yourself down." But even the experienced McCourt, who for the last 15 years of his teaching life taught the most popular classes in the school, is prone to self-pitying gloom and can sound like Eeyore: "Hey Mac, your life, Mac, thirty years of it, Mac, is gonna be school, school, school, kids, kids, kids." (Or does he mean "education, education, education"? We English teachers must stop teaching that the rule of three is an effective rhetorical device.) Halfway through his career, the clouds break. He finds a new job and has a daughter: "My fantasies faded before her sweet reality and I began to feel at home in the world."
The new job is at Stuyvesant high school in Manhattan, "the Harvard of High Schools", which skims off the top 700 from thousands who sit the admissions test. Here he teaches creative writing classes which have pupils sitting on the windowsills, eager for the fun he offers reciting recipes to musical accompaniments. Although he still grumbles about his bag of marking ("a dog waiting for attention"), he clearly feels on top of his classroom.
He has another trick, the dinner interrogation: questioning an unsuspecting victim on what he had for dinner until it's established that while father and son loafed on the sofa, mother and daughter made and cleared away the meal. "Did you learn anything about James and his family?" McCourt asks sweetly. "Is there a story there? Jessica?" Poor James. McCourt is "at center stage: Master Teacher, Interrogator, Puppeteer, Conductor".
The last section of the book is, in many ways, a delight. The anecdotes are funny and the characterisations warm as McCourt grows up and stops thinking about himself. But there is always a doubt about centre-stage accounts of wonderful lessons. It's easy to be proud of one's whimsy and originality and not notice how many students are learning anything.
And it's a pity that, by this account, McCourt only came into his own when teaching a privileged elite. I will, however, be pinching some of his ideas, but since I'm not teaching at the Harvard of High Schools, I'll try the one where pupils make up their own excuse notes for absences.
David Buckley is a part-time English teacher in Sheffield