This afternoon, I finished reading Frank McCourt’s third memoir Teacher Man. When asked by new friends why he waited until he was 66 before publishing Angela’s Ashes, he explains,
I was teaching, that’s what took me so long. Not in college or university, where you have all the time in the world for writing and other diversions, but in four different New York City public high schools… When you teach five high school classes a day, five days a week, you’re not inclined to go home to clear your head and fashion deathless prose. After a day of five classes your head is filled with the clamor of the classroom.
I couldn’t have said it better. Teaching is exhausting, physically and psychologically.
I wasn’t able to finish Angela’s Ashes. At the point when I realized the twins would die, I had to put the book down: it was too depressing. I haven’t read ‘Tis, either. I picked up this book thinking it would be right up my alley, and I walked away feeling that I was right.
It was interesting to see McCourt second-guess himself, to feel he wasn’t a good teacher at times. It was a joy to celebrate with him after a particularly good lesson. I have had moments in my teaching life in which I, too, felt like an utter failure, punctuated by moments when I know I’ve really hit it — I have really taught a great lesson. It’s an amazing feeling. I feel like I could fly afterward, and it is that feeling that McCourt so eloquently captures in his book.
I can’t recall where I read this now, but one comment from a reviewer stands out to me after reading this book. “McCourt hates his students.” I have to wonder if that reviewer read the same book I did. It was clear to me that McCourt loved teaching, especially after he began teaching creative writing at Stuyvesant High School. That he cared deeply about his students is evident on each page. Did he complain about some of them? Sure. Show me a teacher who has never done that — you can’t. That teacher never existed. And each teacher is sure the kids in his/her generation were more respectful, more engaged, more… whatever. McCourt tells it like it is — in his thirty years of teaching, the kids didn’t change. Indeed, his late 1950’s students were just like students I’ve had. However, I also noted that even if he complained gently, he often wrote in the next few pages of reaching a new understanding or peace with the student he was having trouble with. I did not sense any resentment in the end. I think he was very happy with his career in the end, despite wondering at times if he had done the right thing in becoming a teacher.
I came away from the book wishing I had been a student in his class. His classes sounded so interesting, so different. He actually reminded me so much of a colleague at my current school, a fellow English teacher, that I bought a copy of Teacher Man and had it sent to my colleague at school. I hope he enjoys it as much as I did.