Yes, I finished the book Teacher Man by Frank McCourt. I finished it yesterday actually. It’s a pretty short book. Once I had the chance to just sit down on my couch with time to read, before I knew it the book was finished.
The blurb on the back of the book reads, “... it should be mandatory reading for every teacher in America. And it wouldn’t hurt some politicians to read it too.” The blurb is vastly overhyping the book. It’s just one man’s memoir and there isn’t much in it that really tells you much about American high schools that you don’t already know. After all, if you are over the age of 36, then you attended high school at the time when Frank McCourt was teaching it. Furthermore, at least one third of the book is about McCourt’s life outside of the classroom.
Now for the parts of the book that I found especially interesting.
From chapter eight:
Every June during my eight years at McKee, the English department met in a classroom to read, evaluate, grade the New York State English Regents examination. Barely half the students passed the examination. The other half had to be helped. We tired to inflate the grades from high fifties to passing, the mandated sixty-five.
Today we think that the problems of standardized tests and the efforts of schools to boost their own kids’ scores on those tests are somehow unique to the current decade. But we see that schools in the sixties faced the same issues, and there was the same dishonesty in grading.
In case you are wondering if McCourt is really that smart, from chapter eleven:
... I sat for the American Graduate Record Examination ... and astonished myself and those around me with a score in the ninety-ninth percentile in English.
As I suspected, McCourt was far too bright to be a high school teacher. He was bright but lazy. He went to Trinity College in Dublin to get a PhD, but didn’t have the discipline required to complete the program.
McCourt is self deprecating about his intelligence. About Stuyvesant, which is New York City’s best public high school and only selects the best students via a competitive admissions test, McCourt writes, “Now I taught where I could never have been one of the [students].” Not true. McCourt was definitely Stuyvesant material.
In a previous essay about Frank McCourt, I wrote:
his book ‘Tis does leave you with the impression that he was tremendously let down by the lack of intellectual leanings on the part of his students, and I know that’s how he felt about me. That was a phase of my life when I thought The Lord of the Rings was the greatest thing ever written, and McCourt certainly didn’t think so.
McCourt apparently responds in chapter twelve:
They moaned when I announced we were going to read A Tale of Two Cities. Why couldn’t they read The Lord of the Rings, Dune, science fiction in general? Why couldn’t they . . . ?
Also from chapter twelve:
When I discussed A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man with my classes, I discovered they were ignorant of the Seven Deadly Sins. Blank looks around the room.
I wrote about Stuyvesant students’ lack of religiosity and McCourt’s Bible lesson in my previous essay. Many years later I finally bought a copy of the Bible because I remembered Mr. McCourt telling us that it was important to have a copy because so much of Western literature was influenced by it.
In chapter 13 he writes:
English was a required subject, but Creative Writing was an elective. You could take it or leave it. They took it. They flocked to my classes. The room was packed. They sat on windowsills. One teacher, Pam Sheldon, said, Why don’t they just let him teach in Yankee Stadium? That’s how popular I was.
What was this enthusiasm for “creative writing”? Did the boys and girls suddenly want to express themselves? Was it my masterly teaching, my charisma, my Irish Charm? The old faith and begorrah factor?
Or had the word spread that this McCourt just rambled on and then disbursed high marks as easily as peanuts?
I answered McCourt’s question in my previous essay:
I didn’t take Creative Writing because it’s what I was interested in—not that I actually knew what I was interested in back when I was in high school—I took the class because Frank McCourt was so highly recommended by other students.
It should be noted here that one of the reasons he was so recommended was because he would allegedly let kids cut his class whenever they wanted to. The “cool kids” (the ones who lived on the Upper East Side) could often be seen hanging out in Stuyvesant Square Park smoking pot when they should have been in McCourt’s class.
I didn’t want to be known as an easy marker. I would have to toughen my image. Tighten up. Organize. Focus.
Were you really allowed to cut his class at will? I’m not sure; I think he started cracking down on that the semester I had him.
I guess, unfortunately, I had him when he was going through one of those phases where he was trying to toughen his image.
In chapter fourteen McCourt writes:
I tell my classes that on Mondays they should bring in The New York Times so we can read Mimi Sheraton’s restaurant reviews.
Now this is the kind of stuff McCourt did that gets me mad. His class was filled with kids from the Upper East Side and other expensive areas of New York City whose parents routinely took them to restaurants of the kind that Mimi Sheraton would review.
But my parents were poor, and the only restaurants I ever ate at were cheap diners in Brooklyn and Staten Island. Mimi Sheraton wouldn’t be caught dead in any of those places. So the rich kids understood exactly what the restaurant reviews were about, while the topic was completely alien to me.
I began life not realizing that I was from the lower social classes. I grew up in the working class borough of Staten Island (which McCourt does a good job of mocking in Teacher Man, and deservedly so because Staten Island is a horrid place), and all of my friends and acquaintances were obviously from the same place, so I didn’t realize that there was a whole high class world out there which I wasn’t a part of.
When I went off to Stuyvesant High School in Manhattan, it was the first time in my life that I had contact with New York City’s upper classes. I didn’t immediately absorb the difference between the classes. I didn’t have McCourt’s Creative Writing class until my senior year, yet his class was full of epiphanies in which I realized how inadequate my background was.
In one class, he asked kids in the class what plays they had seen. The kids with affluent and sophisticated parents had been to real plays. But I had to embarrassingly tell Mr. McCourt that the “play” I saw was a musical about Noah’s Ark. He mocked the concept in front of the class, and asked me if I had been to any real plays, not musicals. I shamefully said that I hadn’t. And I knew that I wasn’t going to see one anytime soon because my parents were way too cheap to ever take me to see a play that wasn’t a musical about Noah’s Ark held in the basement of a synagogue in Brooklyn.
I spent many years feeling inadequate about never having seen a real play until I finally saw some plays at the Actors Theatre of Phoenix (which put on some surprisingly edgy productions for a city so far off the beaten path of culture).
Those who follow this blog closely (there are one or two who do, believe it or not) know that I blog a lot about topics of social class, and someone once commented that I was obsessed with the topic. If that’s the case, then the roots of the obsession go back to Frank McCourt’s Creative Writing class.
Returning to the book Teacher Man, my conclusion is that Frank McCourt, although brilliant, witty, and a great story teller, was also full of character flaws, both as a teacher and a man. In his book ‘Tis he wrote about his problems with drinking. In Teacher Man, we see that he was unable to finish a PhD, and until he got his job at Stuyvesant he was pretty much a failure as a teacher. He knew that teaching high school was beneath him, but he lacked the ambition and drive to rise above that into a more prestigious profession.
The average high school doesn’t need a teacher with the brilliance required to write a book like Angela’s Ashes, the average high school just needs teachers who are good disciplinarians, who can force just a little bit of knowledge into the students’ brains so they can pass their standardized tests. Only at a high school like Stuyvesant could a teacher like McCourt find a home, and even at Stuyvesant McCourt went over the heads of the less intelligent and the less sophisticated. Even though many students loved him, and he certainly made an indelible impression on me, there were other students who didn’t like him because they found him intellectually intimidating and they probably got the impression that he looked down on them.
In the end, Frank McCourt is one of his generation’s most brilliant memoirists, and he was perhaps the most witty and entertaining man ever to stand in front of a high school classroom, but he was not especially good at actually teaching high school English.