Teacher Man, p.1Part #3 of Frank McCourt series by Frank McCourt
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"My Papa's Waltz," copyright 1942 by Hearst Magazines, Inc., from The Collected Poems of Theodore Roethke by Theodore Roethke. Used by permission of Doubleday, a division of Random House, Inc.
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To the next generations of the Tribe McCourt:
Siobhan (daughter of Malachy) and her children, Fiona and Mark
Malachy of Bali (son of Malachy)
Nina (stepdaughter of Malachy)
Mary Elizabeth (daughter of Michael) and her daughter, Sophia
Angela (daughter of Michael)
Conor (son of Malachy) and his daughter, Gillian
Cormac (son of Malachy) and his daughter, Adrianna
Maggie (daughter of Frank) and her children, Chiara, Frankie, and Jack
Allison (daughter of Alphie)
Mikey (son of Michael)
Katie (daughter of Michael)
Sing your song, dance your dance, tell your tale.
Thanks to the American Academy in Rome for three months of scholarship, splendor and merriment.
Thanks to Pam Carter of the Savoy Hotel in London for a three-month pampering in a river suite.
Thanks to my agent, Molly Friedrich, for bright words on dim days.
For my editor, Nan Graham, bring up the trumpets and drums. I strung words together but, as I watched in wonder, she hinted and sculpted till a book emerged.
And love to you, Ellen, wonder wife, always merry and bright, always ready for the next adventure, always kind.
It's a Long Road to Pedagogy
Donkey on a Thistle
Coming Alive in Room 205
If I knew anything about Sigmund Freud and psychoanalysis I'd be able to trace all my troubles to my miserable childhood in Ireland. That miserable childhood deprived me of self-esteem, triggered spasms of self pity, paralyzed my emotions, made me cranky, envious and disrespectful of authority, retarded my development, crippled my doings with the opposite sex, kept me from rising in the world and made me unfit, almost, for human society. How I became a teacher at all and remained one is a miracle and I have to give myself full marks for surviving all those years in the classrooms of New York. There should be a medal for people who survive miserable childhoods and become teachers, and I should be first in line for the medal and whatever bars might be appended for ensuing miseries.
I could lay blame. The miserable childhood doesn't simply happen. It is brought about. There are dark forces. If I am to lay blame it is in a spirit of forgiveness. Therefore, I forgive the following: Pope Pius XII; the English in general and King George VI in particular; Cardinal MacRory, who ruled Ireland when I was a child; the bishop of Limerick, who seemed to think everything was sinful; Eamonn De Valera, former prime minister (Taoiseach) and president of Ireland. Mr. De Valera was a half-Spanish Gaelic fanatic (Spanish onion in an Irish stew) who directed teachers all over Ireland to beat the native tongue into us and natural curiosity out of us. He caused us hours of misery. He was aloof and indifferent to the black and blue welts raised by schoolmaster sticks on various parts of our young bodies. I forgive, also, the priest who drove me from the confessional when I admitted to sins of self-abuse and self-pollution and penny thieveries from my mother's purse. He said I did not show a proper spirit of repentance, especially in the matter of the flesh. And even though he had hit that nail right on the head, his refusal to grant me absolution put my soul in such peril that if I had been flattened by a truck outside the church he would have been responsible for my eternal damnation. I forgive various bullying schoolmasters for pulling me out of my seat by the sideburns, for walloping me regularly with stick, strap and cane when I stumbled over answers in the catechism or when in my head I couldn't divide 937 by 739. I was told by my parents and other adults it was all for my own good. I forgive them for those whopping hypocrisies and wonder where they are at this moment. Heaven? Hell? Purgatory (if it still exists)?
I can even forgive myself, though when I look back at various stages of my life, I groan. What an ass. What timidities. What stupidities. What indecisions and flounderings.
But then I take another look. I had spent childhood and adolescence examining my conscience and finding myself in a perpetual state of sin. That was the training, the brainwashing, the conditioning and it discouraged smugness, especially among the sinning class.
Now I think it time to give myself credit for at least one virtue: doggedness. Not as glamorous as ambition or talent or intellect or charm, but still the one thing that got me through the days and nights.
F. Scott Fitzgerald said that in American lives there are no second acts. He simply did not live long enough. In my case he was wrong.
When I taught in New York City high schools for thirty years no one but my students paid me a scrap of attention. In the world outside the school I was invisible. Then I wrote a book about my childhood and became mick of the moment. I hoped the book would explain family history to McCourt children and grandchildren. I hoped it might sell a few hundred copies and I might be invited to have discussions with book clubs. Instead it jumped onto the best-seller list and was translated into thirty languages and I was dazzled. The book was my second act.
In the world of books I am a late bloomer, a johnny-come-lately, new kid on the block. My first book, Angela's Ashes, was published in 1996 when I was sixty-six, the second, 'Tis, in 1999 when I was sixty-nine. At that age it's a wonder I was able to lift the pen at all. New friends of mine (recently acquired because of my ascension to the best-seller lists) had published books in their twenties. Striplings.
So, what took you so long?
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. (I have read novels about the lives of university professors where they seemed to be so busy with adultery and academic in-fighting you wonder where they found time to squeeze in a little teaching.) 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 never expected Angela's Ashes to attract any attention, but when it hit the best-seller lists I became a media darling. I had my picture taken hundreds of times. I was a geriatric novelty with an Irish accent. I was interviewed for dozens of publications. I met governors, mayors, actors. I met
They made a movie of Angela's Ashes. No matter what you write in America there is always talk of The Movie. You could write the Manhattan telephone directory, and they'd say, So, when is the movie?
If I hadn't written Angela's Ashes I would have died begging, Just one more year, God, just one more year because this book is the one thing I want to do in my life, what's left of it. I never dreamed it would be a best-seller. I hoped it would sit on booksellers' shelves while I lurked in the bookshop and watched beautiful women turn pages and shed the occasional tear. They'd buy the book, of course, take it home, loll on divans and read my story while sipping herbal tea or a fine sherry. They'd order copies for all their friends.
In 'Tis I wrote about my life in America and how I became a teacher. After it was published I had the nagging feeling I'd given teaching short shrift. In America, doctors, lawyers, generals, actors, television people and politicians are admired and rewarded. Not teachers. Teaching is the downstairs maid of professions. Teachers are told to use the service door or go around the back. They are congratulated on having ATTO (All That Time Off ). They are spoken of patronizingly and patted, retroactively, on their silvery locks. Oh, yes, I had an English teacher, Miss Smith, who really inspired me. I'll never forget dear old Miss Smith. She used to say that if she reached one child in her forty years of teaching it would make it all worthwhile. She'd die happy. The inspiring English teacher then fades into gray shadows to eke out her days on a penny-pinching pension, dreaming of the one child she might have reached. Dream on, teacher. You will not be celebrated.
You think you'll walk into the classroom, stand a moment, wait for silence, watch while they open notebooks and click pens, tell them your name, write it on the board, proceed to teach.
On your desk you have the English course of study provided by the school. You'll teach spelling, vocabulary, grammar, reading comprehension, composition, literature.
You can't wait to get to the literature. You'll have lively discussions about poems, plays, essays, novels, short stories. The hands of one hundred and seventy students will quiver in the air and they'll call out, Mr. McCourt, me, me, I wanna say something.
You hope they'll want to say something. You don't want them to sit gawking while you struggle to keep a lesson alive.
You'll feast on the bodies of English and American literature. What a time you'll have with Carlyle and Arnold, Emerson and Thoreau. You can't wait to get to Shelley, Keats and Byron and good old Walt Whitman. Your classes will love all that romanticism and rebellion, all that defiance. You'll love it yourself, because, deep down and in your dreams, you're a wild romantic. You see yourself on the barricades.
Principals and other figures of authority passing in the hallways will hear sounds of excitement from your room. They'll peer through the door window in wonder at all the raised hands, the eagerness and excitement on the faces of these boys and girls, these plumbers, electricians, beauticians, carpenters, mechanics, typists, machinists.
You'll be nominated for awards: Teacher of the Year, Teacher of the Century. You'll be invited to Washington. Eisenhower will shake your hand. Newspapers will ask you, a mere teacher, for your opinion on education. This will be big news: A teacher asked for his opinion on education. Wow. You'll be on television.
Imagine: A teacher on television.
They'll fly you to Hollywood, where you'll star in movies about your own life. Humble beginnings, miserable childhood, problems with the church (which you bravely defied), images of you solitary in a corner, reading by candlelight: Chaucer, Shakespeare, Austen, Dickens. You there in the corner blinking with your poor diseased eyes, bravely reading till your mother pulls the candle away from you, tells you if you don't stop the two eyes will fall out of your head entirely. You plead for the candle back, you have only a hundred pages left in Dombey and Son, and she says, No, I don't want to be leading you around Limerick with people asking how you went blind when a year ago you were kicking a ball with the best of them.
You say yes to your mother because you know the song:
A mother's love is a blessing
No matter where you go
Keep her while you have her
You'll miss her when she's gone.
Besides, you could never talk back to a movie mother played by one of those old Irish actresses, Sarah Allgood or Una O'Connor, with their sharp tongues and their suffering faces. Your own mother had a powerful hurt look, too, but there's nothing like seeing it on the big screen in black and white or living color.
Your father could be played by Clark Gable except that a) he might not be able to handle your father's North of Ireland accent and b) it would be a terrible comedown from Gone With the Wind, which, you remember, was banned in Ireland because, it is said, Rhett Butler carried his own wife, Scarlett, up the stairs and into bed, which upset the film censors in Dublin and caused them to ban the film entirely. No, you'd need someone else as your father because the Irish censors would be watching closely and you'd be badly disappointed if the people in Limerick, your city, and the rest of Ireland were denied the opportunity of seeing the story of your miserable childhood and subsequent triumph as teacher and movie star.
But that would not be the end of the story. The real story would be how you eventually resisted the siren call of Hollywood, how after nights of being dined, wined, feted and lured to the beds of female stars, established and aspiring, you discovered the hollowness of their lives, how they poured out their hearts to you on various satin pillows, how you listened, with twinges of guilt, while they expressed their admiration for you, that you, because of your devotion to your students, had become an idol and an icon in Hollywood, how they, the ravishing female stars, established and aspiring, regretted how they had gone astray, embracing the emptiness of their Hollywood lives when, if they gave it all up, they could rejoice daily in the integrity of teaching the future craftsmen, tradesmen and clerk-typists of America. How it must feel, they would say, to wake up in the morning, to leap gladly from the bed, knowing that before you stretched a day in which you'd do God's work with the youth of America, content with your meager remuneration, your real reward the glow of gratitude in the eager eyes of your students as they bear gifts from their grateful and admiring parents: cookies, bread, homemade pasta and the occasional bottle of wine from the backyard vines of Italian families, the mothers and fathers of your one hundred and seventy students at McKee Vocational and Technical High School, Borough of Staten Island, in the City of New York.
It's a Long Road
Here they come.
And I'm not ready.
How could I be?
I'm a new teacher and learning on the job.
On the first day of my teaching career, I was almost fired for eating the sandwich of a hig
It is March 1958. I sit at my desk in an empty classroom in McKee Vocational and Technical High School in the Borough of Staten Island, New York City. I toy with the implements of my new calling: five manila folders, one for each class; a clump of crumbling rubber bands; a block of brown wartime composition paper flecked with whatever went into the making of it; a worn blackboard eraser; a stack of white cards that I will insert row by row into slots in this tattered red Delaney book to help me remember the names of one hundred and sixty-odd boys and girls who will sit in rows every day in five different classes. On the cards I'll record their attendance and tardiness and make little marks when boys and girls do bad things. I'm told I should keep a red pen to record the bad things, but the school hasn't supplied one, and now I have to request it on a form or buy one in a shop because the red pen for the bad things is the teacher's most powerful weapon. There are many things I will have to buy in a shop. In Eisenhower's America there is prosperity but it does not trickle down to schools, especially to new teachers who need supplies for their classes. There is a note from an assistant principal in charge of administration reminding all teachers of the city's financial plight and to please use these supplies sparingly. This morning I have to make decisions. In a minute the bell will ring. They'll swarm in and what will they say if they see me at the desk? Hey, look. He's hiding out. They are experts on teachers. Sitting at the desk means you're scared or lazy. You're using the desk as a barrier. Best thing is to get out there and stand. Face the music. Be a man. Make one mistake your first day and it takes months to recover.
The kids arriving are juniors, sixteen years old, eleven years in school from kindergarten to today. So, teachers come, teachers go, all kinds, old, young, tough, kind. Kids watch, scrutinize, judge. They know body language, tone of voice, demeanor in general. It's not as if they sit around in toilets or cafeterias discussing these things. They just absorb it over eleven years, pass it on to coming generations. Watch out for Miss Boyd, they'll say. Homework, man, homework, and she corrects it. Corrects it. She ain't married so she's got nothing else to do. Always try to get married teachers with kids. They don't have time for sitting around with papers and books. If Miss Boyd got laid regular she wouldn't give so much homework. She sits there at home with her cat listening to classical music, correcting our homework, bothering us. Not like some teachers. They give you a pile of homework, check it off, never even look at it. You could copy a page of the Bible and they'd write at the top, "Very nice." Not Miss Boyd. She's on to you right off. Excuse me, Charlie. Did you write this yourself? And you have to admit, no, you didn't and now you're up shit creek, man.
Teacher Man by Frank McCourt / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes