08 December 2005

Someone to learn from: Frank McCourt discusses days as 'Teacher Man'

The Advocate

By Ray Hogan
Staff Writer

Published December 8 2005

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In his first two days as a public school teacher in 1958, Frank McCourt ate a sandwich off the floor and told the class that in Ireland, boys went out with sheep instead of girls.

His style remained original and irreverent throughout the next 30 years he spent teaching at five schools in New York City. He would encourage students to recite recipes as poems, hold international food festivals in Stuyvesant Park and allow the notorious beatnik junkie Herbert Hunke into the classroom to borrow money.

He recounts these stories and more in "Teacher Man," the final book in a trilogy of memoirs that began with "Angela's Ashes" in 1996. In the book's prologue, he writes "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.' "

On Saturday, he will speak and sign copies of "Teacher Man" (Scribner) at the Greenwich Library in a program sponsored by Just Books and the Friends Selective Eye Series.

McCourt taught from 1958 until the late 1980s in a career that began at the McKee Vocational and Technical High School on Staten Island and ended at the prestigious Stuyvesant High School in Greenwich Village.

Although he went against educational protocol of the era, McCourt tried to find creative ways to play to his students' interests. At the start of his tenure, McCourt is a man unsure of what teaching entails and ends as a teacher who has sparked the imaginations and impulses of some of New York's brightest young minds and diamonds-in-the-rough. At a recent lecture in Los Angeles, the moderator asked how many of his former students were in the audience. There were more than a dozen.

"It was the unpredictability of it that they liked," McCourt says of his unorthodox approach. "They didn't know which way I was going to jump. If they challenged me, I challenged them right back. I had to find my own style."

"Angela's Ashes" made McCourt an overnight sensation in the literary world. In the book, the Brooklyn-born author recounts growing up poor in Limerick, Ireland. " 'Tis" (1999) chronicles his life as a young man in New York. "Teacher Man" covers the longest time frame and ends with a student suggesting he write a book.

He didn't set out to lay out his life in three parts.

"I would have been very happy to finish one book. That was my ambition, my dream," he says. "I finished that and said you have to tell the story of your immigration. After that, I have to do a teaching book. I don't know what's next, not a memoir."

For a man who describes himself at middle-age as "waving without knowing what I was waving at," McCourt found his second act in 1996 with "Angela's Ashes." It immediately catapulted him to the upper crust of American literature.

"It was a wonderful book, but a once-in-a-lifetime thing when all the forces came together," says Larry Kirwan, singer of Irish rock band Black 47 and author of "Liverpool Fantasy" and "Green Suede Shoes: An Irish-American Odyssey." "And that's what you need for a blockbuster. All his life he had been around writers and probably felt it a bit. All of a sudden he's, as he said, 'the chief mc'."

McCourt admits his debut at age 66 propelled him to a new level -- from school teacher to toast of the town. Suddenly, he was being approached by people on the street who wanted his autograph because they saw him on television but didn't remember what he did. "People looked at you in a way that they never looked at you when you were a teacher," he says. "It was the magic of television, and that's what was startling. Thankfully, I had developed some self-confidence. I realized that after the 30 years (teaching) American adolescents, I could have handled the Spanish Inquisition."

McCourt brings the same elan to the written page as he did to the classroom. He recalls events that occurred more than 30 years ago with the same excitement and ear for patois as if they happened yesterday. Like those he grew up with in Ireland, he's a natural storyteller who can spin the events of an average day into something worth retelling.

Kirwan recalls killing hangovers by spending afternoons with critics such as Lester Bangs and Nick Tosches at McCourt's brother Malachy's the Bells of Hell bar in the West Village in the mid-1970s. One day at the bar, which Kirwan remembers being inhabited by those too young for -- or banned from -- the more literary Lion's Head, a parade of teenagers came in escorted by McCourt. "They were very respectful. He comes in, points to us and says, 'So you want to be writers?'ÉÊHe brought them in to take the romance out of it."

The author admits his methods might have seemed at odds with the educational establishment of the times. He also knew his profession was competing with the emerging times.

"I was always looking for new ways of exciting them about poetry and short stories," McCourt says. "I was aware of the fact that they would go home and watch television. We were competing with that in a sense. I wanted to bury that with the excitement of the classroom."

McCourt traces his love of language to growing up poor in Ireland. Without the benefit of even radio, he and his family and friends had to occupy their time by telling stories. McCourt says his father, whose alcoholism was documented in "Angela's Ashes," could take the name of a neighbor and turn it into the greatest tale ever told. Among his friends, the young McCourt heard yarns about fathers being great gunmen for the Irish Republican Army.

"In the pubs, it was talk, talk," he says. "There was a deep satisfaction that we had out of talking and a deep respect for the language. That kind of facility of language is surely disappearing."

He is not sure he would want to teach if he were a young man today. During his career, he became hip to students' endless resourcefulness in excuses and cheating, but forging a sick note was often the worst of it. Today, he says, ask students to write a report and a quick Google search will offer them dozens.

"This book has a wide and limited appeal," he says. "Teachers are interested in it but people are confused as to what's going on in the world of schools. No one knows what to make of No Child Left Behind. The question is what is it all about? What are schools for? It's an assembly line now. Stick a tag on them to show they've passed certain tests."

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