Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Teacher Man

Frank McCourt is not easy to read. I 'suffered' through his Angela's Ashes more than a decade ago and never returned to him until this year when, on the advice of a wise man, took up his third book, Teacher Man.

I remember trudging through Angela's Ashes because the story, his story, was so depressing. The book recounts McCourt's growing up in Limerick, Ireland and the psychological scars he acquired through the many downs he encountered. He was to mention these again in Teacher Man to similar feelings of depression. In Teacher Man, he added depressing accounts of his start in the teaching profession, of how the schools he started with had students who had no great interest in studying. And McCourt was depressingly frank - he wrote that he didn't know what to do with these students, or how to teach them. It would have been uplifting if he had written of how he faced the odds in the classroom and overcame them. But he didn't overcome the odds, it just got too tiresome. He eventually left for another school - a community college, where the students were older and more mature and probably more willing to learn. It didn't last either because he only had a Master's degree. The school could only offer him a position if he had planned on getting a PhD. So he returned to a teaching position in a Vocational School, but this lasted only 5 months before he was 'forced out'.

When I started out with the book, I wasn't expecting so much 'failure' in the book. I had expected this to be an inspirational book, but for 2/3 of the book, it was not to be found - even in his recounting of his attempt at a PhD in Trinity College, Dublin. But he does keep the narrative interesting by describing some of his students and their antics, and related some of this to his early days in New York, after he came over from Ireland. To me, the narrative starts to sparkle when he join his last school, Stuyvescent High School. before he retired. It is here that he came into his own as an innovative and effective teacher of creative writing. It is not surprising that he eventually put pen to paper himself and produced his autobiographical trilogy - the award-winning Angela's Ashes, Tis! and Teacher Man.

In this book, and his earlier one (I have not read Tis! though), he brings a depressing honesty to his narrative, calling a dog a dog, and not fudging at his failings. At least, that is my impression. And he does have some gems in the book on what teaching is about, and how he developed as a teacher. This is a very interesting book (although somewhat dated), but if you consider teaching an evergreen profession, then you can do nothing better than read his account of teaching and learning. Just for forewarned - you need to be patient to be inspired here.