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.
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
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.