Friday, January 06, 2006

Top Of The Class - Frank McCourt's "Teacher Man"

Author: Frank McCourt

Publisher: Fourth Estate / Harper Collins

Format: Hardback

ISBN: 0-00-717398-9

"Angela's Ashes", Frank McCourt's first book in his trilogy of memoirs, about growing up in an impoverished Catholic family in Ireland, is one of my all time favorite books, so it is with baited breath that I waited to read "Teacher Man" which is McCourt's third book and in which he reminisces about his years as a high school English teacher, first in a couple of vocational High Schools and finally, in New York's prestigious "Stuyvesant" High School (the Ivy League of High Schools).

McCourt has not lost his touch as master storyteller and I laughed out loud at some of the anecdotes involving his students. For instance, on his first day at school as a teacher, a sandwich fight broke out and the sandwich in question, a beautiful baloney sandwich filled with tomatoes, onions, pickles, drizzled with garlic olive oil and packed between two robust slices of home-made Italian bread, landed on the floor near his desk. As he bent to pick it up he couldn't help but swoon with the aroma of it and before he knew what he was doing, he had taken a bite out of it, much to the kids' astonishment! To his bad luck, the principal happened to be passing by his classroom and poor Frank McCourt was reprimanded for eating lunch in the classroom, at 9:00am!

Frank McCourt realized early in his teaching career that the kids would do anything to stop him from teaching them "course material" like grammar, syntax, essay writing etc. They would ask him questions about his life back in Ireland just to take his mind off the teaching. When McCourt realized that he decided to incorporate stories of his impoverished childhood---his alcoholic father, his desperate mother, his starving and cold brothers and sisters into the lessons and soon his class became the most popular class in the high school, "...they flocked to my classes. The room was packed. They sat on windowsills..."

He was a very creative teacher, too and instead of giving the kids run of the mill reports like "write an essay on poverty", etc., he made his class do unorthodox assignments like making up excuse notes from Adam and Eve to God explaining why they ate of the forbidden fruit (this idea had its genesis after McCourt saw the creativity in the "excuse notes" his students forged in the name of their parents!). As he said in a TV interview, "You couldn't get them to write a composition but when it comes to excuses there were masses of English prose,"

One time (and sadly, this is not in the book but he talks about it at every interview) he made them write obituaries for their teachers - "not a single teacher died peacefully in bed. They suffered the horrors. They were skinned alive Â… They fell off cliffs. They were crushed between two buses. "It was wonderful," he recounts with undisguised glee in another interview with Canadian Television, "I hesitated to show them to the teachers involved -- so I would cross out the names and the teachers thought it was hilarious." Yet when McCourt challenged his pupils to write obituaries about themselves, the tone of their writing shifted.
"All the boys died peacefully in bed surrounded by beautiful women,"

Some of the other fun stories in the book include the time he took twenty-eight inner city, African-American girl students to the movies and so unused were they to outings that he had a hard time he had controlling them, especially after they were all pumped up with sugar from cookies, candy and pink lemonade! Or the other time he arranged a picnic in the park during school hours to teach his class "food vocabulary" and the time he got his students to read from a cookery book to the accompaniment of music by their peers- all this while students in other teachers' classes were studying "Moby Dick" and the poetry of Walt Whitman . *Sigh* How I wish I could have had a teacher like Mr. McCourt!

This is a book that would make a great gift to your High School teacher (if he or she hasn't already bought it) ; it also makes a great read for parents with children in senior school because it takes you through a teacher's day in the classroom and makes you ask yourself, what really makes a good teacher? One that sticks with the syllabus and imparts to your child the desired knowledge, or one that is a good role model creating an interest and a curiosity about life in your child, but who doesn't exactly "teach"? We also need to ask ourselves if teachers in North America are getting their fair due? They have the future of America in their classes, but are we paying them enough to look after this future of ours? Do we acknowledge their efforts often enough?

McCourt, does indulge in a little rambling every now and then, but for the most part this is a solid book and highly entertaining---it will take you down memory lane to the time you were in high school and will have you reminiscing about your favorite teachers and any quirky assignments they may have had you do.

Further Reading:

Interview with London's "The Independent"

One of Frank McCourt's students reviews Teacher Man