I read about the death of Frank McCourt last Sunday. His final book, Teacher Man, has been lying on the coffee table in my living room for a few weeks. I had planned to write a review but hadn’t got round to it, so here it is in a slightly different light.
Ever since reading Angela’s Ashes about 10 years ago, McCourt has been an inspiration with his moving yet entertaining memoirs, no doubt sprinkled with a liberal dose of embellishment for storytelling purposes. And why not? There is nothing to stop one being economical with the truth. If you want the facts best not to ask the author – even if he happens to be a teacher.
Nonetheless, his Limerick childhood made my own modest background seem very comfortable indeed. Angela’s Ashes didn’t go down well with everyone in Limerick. Some said it painted the city and its people in too negative a light. But the book had plenty of funny moments to counter the extreme hardship that bordered on being too much to take at times: the death of siblings, his father’s drunkenness and absences; it was no advert for the local tourist board.
‘Tis was a fine follow up covering McCourt’s return to America and the difficulties he faced adapting to life as a young adult there. Teacher Man, as the title suggests, focuses on the profession he would end up doing for much of his working life. Always the unconventional misfit, on his first day teaching at a Staten Island high school McCourt picked up a sandwich a pupil had thrown in his direction and proceeded to eat it, the Irish American gradually got to know his way around the profession. Having taught plenty myself I can relate well to this book: the psychology of recognising different types of students for instance; but it was the part where he returned to Ireland again that I found most intriguing. His wife advised him to go back to get better qualified; it seems pretty certain that she wanted to get rid of him for a while as the marriage was gradually hitting the rocks. So keen was she to get shot of him that she booked him on the Queen Elizabeth. Thirty four years after his first visit to the Emerald Isle he was on his way back.
So there he was, sailing across the Atlantic not knowing what to expect, just as he had done as a four year old. This time he was approaching forty. He got lucky with a nurse during the crossing but after a couple of days she dumped him for a 60-year-old. That did nothing for McCourt’s confidence. However, he was accepted into Trinity College to do a doctorate in Irish-American Literary Relations. He celebrated with a pint or two in McDaid’s where he was brought back to earth by one of the locals: “Jaysus, it’s a sad day when you have to come to Dublin for a fookin’ university.”
After two alienating years, he returned without completing the doctorate to what he knew best: New York and teaching. Having achieved good results in assessments he got a break by finding a position at the prestigious Stuyvesant High School. By his third year there he was teaching creative writing to students who actually wanted to be in the class. A refreshing change from earlier days. He had the students eating out of his hand and even reciting and singing recipes. Yes, reciting and singing recipes. You’ll have to read the book to discover what that was all about.
Like all good things that activity came to an end; creative enjoyment for its own sake doesn’t tend to go down so well with principals or parents.
Oh well, it was fun while it lasted, Mr McCourt.