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Teacher Man: A Memoir Paperback – Unabridged, September 19, 2006
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The author had a difficult time understanding how American teenagers could spurn the ample resources and opportunities available in public high schools, and so do I. To be fair, sometimes the teenagers he encountered didn't focus on school because they were spoiled, other times they were held back from reaching their potential by growing up in broken homes, or as African Americans in an age where discrimination was a larger problem than it is (still) today. The author found a way to relate to most of them, usually by relating his life growing up in Ireland, though he was also aware that asking him questions about himself was often students' ploy to distract him from the curriculum.
The memoir covers the author's teaching experience at several NY City high schools and a community college attended by busy working class people, his failed attempt at getting a doctorate at Trinity College, Dublin, and his personal relationships. The last part is about where he spent his last two decades of teaching--at Stuyvesant High School, one of the handful of public magnet schools in NY City. That part was very different than his earlier experience--much more professional support from his assistant principal and other administrators, much more motivated students. The competition to be admitted to Stuyvesant High School was not as fierce then as it is now, but it was still very selective, and the author remarked how immediately he saw the difference--he had the students undivided attention, and thus could focus on teaching, rather than on discipline as he had at other schools. Some events are ironic--how he often asked some of his Chinese students with help diagramming English sentences; other are stereotypical, e.g. of the Chinese student did his best to make his hard-working parents proud of him, and wanted to tell McCourt that he personally understands what it is like to grow up poor, but didn't want to share it with the whole class because his parents might be embarassed. Like other reviewers, I am surprised that part III is so short, given that it covers the majority of his career, and was also his most fruitful time as a teacher. Perhaps fewer dramatic events took place in his last two decades of teaching, and better motivated students were less likely to challenge his authority as a teacher, or go through epiphanies about the value of education. I wish the author would go into a bit more detail about what sets successful students apart, but then I suppose that would be expecting this to be a work of non-fiction rather than what it is, a stream-of-consciousness memoir.
McCourt is about as real a writer as I can imagine. His language is straightforward – never hackneyed, never trite – and every situation he describes seems to lift right off the page and into a reader’s eyes, ears, nose and gut.
If I think this particular memoir should be recommended reading for every teacher in the New York Public Educational system, I’m even more convinced that it should be required reading for every administrator in that same system. (I’m of course assuming that those teachers and administrators can be both honest and introspective enough to read the book with an open and receptive mind.)
I’ve substitute-taught, myself, in the New York Independent School system here in Brooklyn, in Manhattan, in the Bronx and in Queens – and my application to teach in the public school system was twice rejected. The chief distinction in qualifying for the former and even being considered for the latter is now – if it wasn’t already – crystal clear to me after having read McCourt’s own experience of both. (Although Stuyvesant High School is not, properly speaking, part of the Independent School system, the guiding philosophy of that particular school – as we have it from McCourt, and as I know it from some of its graduates – is very much in line with that of NYC’s Independent schools.) The Independents look for passion and creativity in their respective staffs; the Publics look for obedience, strict adherence to rules, and a Master’s Degree in Education.
Please allow me a second anecdote. This one concerns a school I attended in South Florida when I was a kid….
I’d just graduated from Bayview (public) Elementary School in a section of Fort Lauderdale known as ‘Coral Ridge,’ and I was now headed off to middle – or as we called it those days – junior high school.
I ended up, quite felicitously, going to what was then billed as an “experimental” school called ‘Nova’ just west of Fort Lauderdale in a little town called ‘Davie’ and right down the road from some obsolete gravel pits. It was one of a kind in the entire U. S. At the time I entered the 7th Grade, the school had only 7th – 10th, the plan being to add 11th and 12th over the next two years, then to start building back to kindergarten and eventually to build out to a university. In other words, kindergarten through graduate school, all on one campus.
What made the school “experimental” other than what I’ve just described as its future plans? Apart from state-of-the-art science labs and foreign language instruction in several languages, both ancient and modern, starting already at the 7th Grade level, no bells or buzzers to mark the start and end of class periods; carpeted hallways; college-like lecture halls for some of the Intro to XXX classes. And the most innovative and exciting thing of all? Every student could advance at his or her own pace in a given discipline. You could – as a motivated eleven- or twelve-year-old – find yourself sharing classroom space with high school seniors.
In fact, many students went on to college at the age of fourteen or fifteen.
It was the happiest and most fulfilling year of my long academic career – and, I’d like to think, at least the germ of a start to my writing career.
My parents, for various reasons, pulled me out after one year and put me back into the public school system. Within short order, the annoying habit I’d developed at Nova of reading (rather than gabbing) while waiting in line in the lunchroom rendered me something of an apostate, but I wasn’t in school to win a popularity contest. Also within relatively short order, a science teacher put an end to my incessant questions by reminding me publicly “You’re not at Nova any longer. Rusty.”
(It wasn’t until I eventually moved to Brooklyn that I better understood the meaning of a name – which I still remember quite well – namely, his: ‘Mr. Schmuck.’)
But back to Frank McCourt’s memoir, TEACHER MAN. Two descriptive words occur to me immediately: ‘vivid’ and ‘compelling.’ If you have any thoughts about the state of the present educational system(s) in America – or have children of your own who may already be in one of them or are about to enter – I can’t give this memoir a high enough recommendation.
But I should let McCourt, himself, have the last word – just as he did with his students on the last day of their secondary education, and on the last day of his teaching career.
“This is where teacher turns serious and asks Big Question: What is education, anyway? What are we doing in this school? … I’ve worked out an equation for myself. On the left side of the blackboard I print a capital F, on the right side another capital F. I draw an arrow from left to right, from FEAR to FREEDOM.
“I don’t think anyone achieves complete freedom, but what I am trying to do with you is drive fear into a corner” (p. 253).