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Book review: ...Teacher Man... Frank McCourt Divulges Pedagogical Anecdotes

Author of ...Angela...s Ashes... Completes Third Installment of Life Story

By W. Victoria Lee

Teacher Man

By Frank McCourt

258 pages, hardcover

Published by Scribner 2005

Angela’s Ashes” is one of those books almost everybody has read. Fortunately, I haven’t, and that’s why I can give the Pulitzer Prize-winning author Frank McCourt an unbiased review of his third autobiographical book, “Teacher Man.” Having seen the movie adaptation of “Angela’s Ashes,” I believed the story too depressing for my taste and shunned the book. “Teacher Man” isn’t much cheerier; our hero (or antihero), Frankie, continues his dismal existence in America, hounded by the usual troubles with women, self-esteem, and direction in life. The difference is the set of schoolyard stories, which bring a breeze of fresh air. Not to dismiss the literary qualities of “Angela’s Ashes” and “ ’Tis,” but tales of a miserable childhood and the problems of life are powerful emotional tools that can too easily be used to manipulate readers.

In a way, “Teacher Man” is an appendix to McCourt’s second installment, “ ’Tis,” which tells the tale of McCourt’s life in America and how he became a teacher. As McCourt wrote in the prologue of “Teacher Man,” he felt that he didn’t give his 30-year teaching career enough exposure in the second book, so he wrote a third one. He also said he thought that teaching secondary school is one of the most underrated professions in America, and therefore penned a new memoir to take readers into New York’s high school classrooms. Whether this is the genuine motivation or a mask for a clever business plan to break one’s own life into three installments and charge readers thrice is for McCourt to know and for us to not care.

Surely you are expecting a saccharine moment that often plagues school-related books and movies, namely the moment when an incorrigible pupil is converted by the mentor who teaches from the heart. No? Good for you, because there is none of that in “Teacher Man.” In fact, McCourt writes of being an unsuccessful teacher for at least half of his career. Unable to discipline the rowdy students in the vocational high school and accused of telling too many stories of his “miserable childhood” in Ireland instead of teaching English, he was troubled by the possibility that he was popular at the prestigious Stuyvesant High School because he gave good grades.

One of those odd-ball teachers whose pedagogical accomplishments were not spectacular, he is the type you still remember from the days driven by exams and the recess bells, 30 years down the road. In “Teacher Man,” McCourt tells the unusual and sometimes eccentric stories of his classrooms spanning three decades, four public New York high schools, and one community college, sprinkled with the intermittent life crises like a lackluster marriage, firing, and unfruitful attempt to earn a doctorate. McCourt does sometimes get carried away and start a seemingly interminable rant about his miserable childhood and personal life, but fortunately manages to get back on track and finish the chapter with a sparkling classroom tale. It is these moments that make this memoir a good read, though occasionally marred by the banal and sometimes too-much-information life stories.

McCourt never focuses on one student, but instead gives all of his students individual voices, and paints an honest portrait behind the closed doors of high school classrooms. These stories happened long ago, but kids will be kids, and we can see ourselves in some of the characters. Although I found some of McCourt’s opinions on the success of his first book, university faculty, and education system here and abroad not so digestible, his accounts of the times he shared with students and his unique teaching methods did leave a savory aftertaste, literally. He once resolved a conflict by eating a sandwich and revived student interest by reading recipes.

I would not bet on “Teacher Man” bringing McCourt a second Pulitzer, but I’ll definitely put it on a reading list. After all, don’t we all secretly hope that one day we, too, will appear in a high school teacher’s memoir?