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Eyes on a 'great American drama'

Frank McCourt, with a third memoir out on his teaching career, still finds he identifies more with his old colleagues.

November 23, 2005|Hillel Italie | Associated Press

NEW YORK — In a perfect world, all retired teachers would live like Frank McCourt, who divides his time between a spacious estate in Connecticut and this doorman building on Manhattan's Upper West Side, where the white-haired author sits tieless in his living room on a bright, calm morning.

"Angela's Ashes" raised his standard of living far beyond the reach of a teacher's pension, but time, wealth and adulation have not eroded his Irish accent or brightened his sad eyes or tanned his chalky skin. As millions of readers know, McCourt grew up poor in Ireland and didn't get much richer from his 30 years as a public school teacher in New York, memories of which he shares in his new book, "Teacher Man."

In a world of labor and management, says McCourt's friend Pete Hamill, McCourt's heart remains with the workers. When discussing a contract just ratified by New York City teachers, McCourt sounds not like a rich man showing pity but like a union man getting the short end.

"It's a disgrace," McCourt says. "The teachers are kept in the schoolroom an extra half hour a day.... Then they get home and have bags of papers to correct.

"I know from my own experience that if you sit down, you can't make a dent on that bag of papers in an evening unless you ignore the wife, ignore the family, don't go out."

"Teacher Man" is the third and probably last memoir from the man who proved with "Angela's Ashes" that publishing was not just a young person's game and that you didn't need to be famous to get millions to care about your story. In 1996, at age 66, McCourt became an instant celebrity by making literature out of his dire upbringing in Ireland, famously observing that "worse than the ordinary miserable childhood is the miserable Irish childhood, and worse yet is the miserable Irish Catholic childhood."

His new book begins in 1958, the year of McCourt's first teaching job, at the McKee Vocational and Technical School in the borough of Staten Island. He is in trouble from the start: in the classroom, where a thrown sandwich leads to a near-riot, and outside, where McCourt's decision to eat the thrown sandwich results in a lecture from the principal.

Over the next three decades, much of them spent in the English department at the elite Stuyvesant High School, McCourt learned much about what rules to break and what to enforce: He defied the advice of his colleagues and shared his personal stories with the class; he slapped a student with a magazine and took on another known to have a black belt in karate.

The classroom is a near universal experience, but McCourt believes the culture either ignores or romanticizes the teacher's life; even supposedly tough-minded movies such as "Dangerous Minds" and "Blackboard Jungle" fail to note that the high school teacher has not just one class but often five.

" 'Up the Down Staircase' was a good story," McCourt says of Bel Kaufman's novel about an idealistic teacher. "Again, it was only one class. But she got it right. She got all the craziness of the paperwork and the administrators and supervisors."

Like any other species, the teacher must adapt or perish, McCourt learned. Over time, McCourt would transform into a "drill sergeant, rabbi, a shoulder to cry on, a disciplinarian, a singer, a low-level scholar" and countless other roles. He would find himself the star and comic foil of the "great American drama ... the clash of adolescence and middle age."

"There were always days when you couldn't do anything. Sometimes you just start off wrong," he says.

"It's like if a play starts off late. The people get angry and start clapping and then the actors have to bring them back. It's the same thing with teaching. A kid might say something. You might get angry and say something and crush her and humiliate her. And then you have to get the class back."

But asked if he would have given it up for early success as an author, McCourt quickly shakes his head. On the good days, and there were many, he never felt so alive, caught up in the currents of adolescent energy. And McCourt brought his own spark, like having the students write each other's obituaries or set recipes to music.

One former Stuyvesant student, Susan Gilman, remembers McCourt as an innovative and charismatic teacher so popular that students would "forget their program cards" to get in his class. For Gilman, the McCourt legend preceded meeting him. The year before she entered high school, her parents picked up a hitchhiker wearing a Stuyvesant High School shirt. He urged Susan to take McCourt's creative writing class because "he's the best teacher there is."

Gilman is now an author, her latest book a novel, "Hypocrite in a Pouffy White Dress," and she credits her former teacher. "He encouraged me, praised me, pushed me and submitted my writing to various scholastic contests, winning awards for me," she explains.

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