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Slow Learner
By John Dicker

Teacher Man

By Frank McCourt

Scribner, 352 pages, $26

Fans of Frank McCourt’s miserable Irish childhood might want to tread cautiously on his third memoir installment, Teacher Man. It’s not that it lacks the requisite Celtic gloom. And the author’s self-flagellating, deeply empathetic voice is as distinct as it ever was. It’s just that Teacher Man is preempted by the fact that, after Angela’s Ashes (the book, the movie, the Happy Meal), we know young Frankie of Irish destitution is now safe in the bosom of postwar New York, where want is present, but in a subtler form.

And yet, even if the consequences are less dire, this self-anointed “Mick of the moment” provides lavish helpings of self-doubt, self-loathing, and self-absorption. In short, in Teacher Man, McCourt has become a New Yorker in a big way, brimming with class envy, status anxiety, and an open-minded embrace of humanity that occasionally lets him transcend himself, if only between school bells.

Teacher Man chronicles McCourt’s 30 years teaching high school in New York City’s public schools. In his vivid telling, this career was of a teacher loved, but never feared. From his debut at a vocational high school in Staten Island, through itinerant substituting to Manhattan’s elite Stuyvesant School, McCourt taught writing and grammar to kids who would’ve preferred doing anything else.

Originally attempted as a novel, Teacher Man isn’t the most compelling of narratives. Noticeably absent here is the broad, triumphant narrative arc of oppressed immigrant who gets lost and then found in America. Instead we have a literary striver stuck in the classroom, doing his best but never at peace.

Naturally, McCourt mocks his own self-pity and delusions of grandeur, but this doesn’t keep them from growing tedious. In Angela’s Ashes it was less noticeable, because how could you not feel his pain? The deadbeat, alcoholic dad; the ineffectual mother; the baby brothers dropping dead of hunger. If that wasn’t enough, there were the less celebrated aspects of Irish culture, i.e., the twins of a state-sponsored religion and a suffocating nationalism.

Teaching high school surely would seem like a step up from all this. McCourt’s not living like a Gotham prince, but neither is he foraging for mutton scraps. Or hooking freight in a Manhattan warehouse—a gig that, with the G.I. bill, put him through college.

When Teacher Man is not about teaching, it’s a midlife-crisis story about being caught between a childhood with no choices and adulthood with many. As a working-class Irish immigrant, McCourt’s decision to become a teacher—instead of, say, a traditional Irish job like cop or fireman—is a transgression hard to fully understand a half-century later. And yet, it seems McCourt wasn’t transgressive enough. Reconnoitering with literary friends like writer Pete Hamill, he longed to scratch an itch he could hardly admit he had. So it was the classroom where he projected his yearning to surly students who invariably sound like Archie Bunker boilerplates.

Much time is devoted to the author recounting naïve expectations of an American life that exists exclusively in Hollywood montages and apparel catalogues. “I wanted to be doing something adult and significant, dictating to my secretary, sitting with glamorous people at long mahogany boardroom tables, flying to conventions, unwinding in trendy bars, slipping into bed with luscious women . . . ”

This is McCourt at his most boring. Yes, America did not live up to your Selznick-inspired expectations. Get over it. When he does, however, McCourt suggests a mine of stories rarely told with any degree of authenticity; namely, what actually goes on in a classroom. Where other teachers see forged excuse notes as a necessary evil, our author finds, in their creative absurdity, a writing exercise. Soon his tyros are scribbling excuses from Adam and Eve to God. It gets better. And worse. Students read aloud from cookbook recipes, they play music on the street corner. What was it Forrester said, “Only connect?” For McCourt, this is a sine qua non that puts all modes of pedagogy in the toilet.

At its worst, Teacher Man is repetitive and gratingly sentimental. “There were fireworks in my head. It was New Years Eve and the Fourth of July a hundred times over.” No thanks. At its best, we learn how a teacher’s work is a day at the improv, where which no educational philosophy prepares you. An important job, a thankless job, and an enriching profession that won’t make you rich. It never fully satisfied Frank McCourt, but perhaps that’s because he was always a writer playing a teacher, playing an Irishman in America.

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