The Joys of Teaching
An interview with Frank McCourt
Frank McCourt might be smiling these days, but the darkness within keeps leaking out. After publishing two best-selling memoirs about growing up poor in Ireland and moving to America, McCourt has just issued a third, Teacher Man, which chronicles the three decades he spent as an instructor in New York City schools. I recently had an opportunity to discuss with the 75-year-old Pulitzer Prize winner why teaching—not writing—was his salvation.
Early on, you connected with students by telling them stories about growing up poor in Ireland. What made you think to do that?
Well, it's all one big story anyway, isn't it? Look, I knew I had to find my own way of teaching. I certainly couldn't be telling them about grammar or analysis or whatever.
You had some pretty unconventional lesson plans. Were there any that didn't make it into the book?
I once had the kids write each other's obituaries. I called it “getting even.” They were vicious to each other. They had burnings and jumping out of windows and landing on wrought-iron railings.
You began teaching in 1958 at a pretty tough school in Staten Island, and then moved on eventually to Stuyvesant. Why didn't you complain more about the kids—especially the ones at McKee Vocational and Technical who give you such a hard time?
I understood what I would be like in that class. I hated school in Ireland. I thought school in America would be different.
But it wasn't?
You have to remember, this was still post-World War II. Eisenhower was in office, the country was fairly prosperous, but there was this sense that the enemy was out there. And then Vietnam comes around. Those kids at McKee were the ones who were going to go off and come back in body bags. Not the kids at Stuyvesant.
Did the Vietnam War affect the teachers?
When you graduated from college, if you became a teacher, you were exempt. So we had half a dozen teachers at Stuyvesant who were there only because of Vietnam. And they were always complaining. They were in the best school in the city, and all they did was complain. I thought I was in heaven.
Over the years, you taught more than 10,000 students. Do you hear from them now that you're famous?
Oh, I hear from them. I meet them on the street. Some of them are sending me books and manuscripts. One of them, Susan Gilman, who was on the bestseller list, wrote a saucy memoir called Hypocrite in a Pouffy White Dress.
Ten years ago, Angela's Ashes sort of kicked off the memoir boom. Why are so many memoirs being written today?
It's in the air. It was happening back then though with daytime talk shows where you see these people on "Jerry Springer," these pathetic people telling their stories. And now you see it with reality television. People want real-life stories.
You faced questions about the veracity of your memory when Angela's Ashes came out. How do you respond to such criticism?
These books are my impression of what happened—and I cannot remember every conversation word for word, so I recreate some things to get the sense of how it felt then. It's a story.
Did you ever think about writing Teacher Man as a novel?
Yes, and about a year ago I was walking down the street in New York and I ran into Newsweek book critic Malcolm Jones. I said, ’Malcolm, I am trying to write this novel about teaching. But I am struggling. I can't decide whether it should be a novel or a memoir.' ’Memoir,' he yelled. So I said, ’Okay, Malcolm,' and I went home and reverted to the memoir.
Are you more proud of the teaching or the writing?
Oh, the teaching, easily. On the last day of my teaching career, I was sitting in my apartment, having a glass of wine, thinking I'm glad I did it. That I had been somehow useful.
Do you think this book will convert anyone to become a teacher?
I don't know. But I used to have the kids imagine that they were coming home from college to tell their parents they had decided to become a teacher. Oh, they were in an uproar over that one. There wouldn't be a parent in the world who would be pleased with that news.