Frank McCourt earned international fame—and a Pulitzer Prize—after Angela’s Ashes, his memoir about what he termed “the miserable Irish Catholic childhood,” was published in 1996. His second book, ’Tis, about his life as a young man in New York City, followed, cementing his reputation as an important literary voice that meshes pathos with self-lacerating humor.
But long before McCourt became a notable author, he was an educator. His new book, Teacher Man (Scribner), chronicles the more than 30 years he spent teaching English at four public high schools in New York City. The book makes clear that he was anything but a natural. For his first job, at a vocational high school, he did little more than tell stories about growing up in impoverished Limerick, Ireland. Only much later, at the widely acclaimed Stuyvesant High School, did he discover that the key to teaching is, as he says, “going to where they [are] in their adolescence.”
Reached by phone at his home in New York City, McCourt greeted the interviewer with “You’re my people”—in other words, a fellow teacher. He spoke about his early difficulties, how Shakespeare helped turn around his teaching career, and the joys and sorrows of the job.
Q: Angela’s Ashes was published when you were 65 years old. May I ask what took so long?
A: I talked a good game about writing someday, but I didn’t know if I could do it. I was scribbling in notebooks all the time, and while I was talking to my students about writing, I was talking to myself and hoping and dreaming.
Q: When you first started teaching, you write that you did little but tell stories of your Irish childhood. Why?
A: The students started asking me questions. Believe me, I didn’t go in the classroom to become a storyteller. I wanted to be a regular teacher—to teach grammar, spelling, vocabulary. But they wouldn’t listen to me when I started talking about the parts of a sentence. I did it because I had no self-confidence and didn’t know what else to do. I thought I would be found out, drummed out of teaching.
Q: Was there a turning point in your teaching career, something that made you feel you could succeed?
A: There was an epiphany, if you want to call it that. I got fed up because the only books I had to teach were Giants in the Earth, a doleful tale of Swedish immigrants, and Silas Marner. Neither appealed to kids in New York City. So I said, out of sheer frustration, “You’re going to read Shakespeare.” “What?” they cried. So I bought five Shakespeare plays out of my own pocket, and we started reading. I said, “There will be no tests, no quizzes, no searches for deeper meaning. Let’s just read.”We started with Macbeth, and then went to Julius Caesar and Hamlet. They loved it, though the girls wondered why Ophelia was such a hopeless mess. I said, “Why shouldn’t she be? Everyone was picking on her.” They got a sense that this was serious stuff.
Ten years later, these same kids were having a reunion in a steakhouse on Staten Island. [When they were students], I had suggested that they might want to memorize some passages, though it was no requirement. Well, that night at the reunion, these young men and women kept coming up to me and reciting passages from Shakespeare. I sat there and wept like a fool.
Q: You write that you had no philosophy of education. Did you finally develop one?
A: I discovered that only by going to where they were in their adolescence could I bring them to where I was. Like Jesus, I had to go among them. The quickest way to do so was to go into childhood, with fairy tales and chanting nursery rhymes. One year I just said, “Write a children’s book.” And I ended up with 150 brilliant children’s books.
Q: You say you really didn’t find yourself as a teacher until you went to Stuyvesant. Why?
A: My chair there let me do what I wanted to do. Before that, they just wouldn’t let me alone. There was always the administration with their dictates. Now, I know there must be enlightened principals and administrators out there, but I wasn’t encountering them.
Q: At Stuyvesant, you taught a lot of classical literature. How did you connect your students to it?
A: I would tell them how difficult it was for me.We’d do Beowulf, and I’d... show them a passage in the original Anglo-Saxon, and then I’d say, “I’m in the same boat as you, I have to work this out.”
You can’t put on airs; you have to be honest with students or you’ll be found out. “In the long run,” I’d tell them, “we know nothing.” “What?” they’d say. I’d say—and this really shocked them—that if we really knew anything, then why are we killing one another, why is there bigotry, oppression? We know nothing. They’d say, “That can’t be true.” This led to huge discussions about what we know, what we don’t know, and what we need to know.
I used to propose that the first period of each day should be devoted to [teachers] discussing the rest of the day [with colleagues]. What’s going on here? What troubles have we had? What are we facing? We should have round-table discussions before we go in to class.
Q: It seems that as a teacher, you felt pretty free to digress.
A: All I did is digress. Now, I knew I had to prepare them for the PSATs, SATs, and so I’d talk about vocabulary, reading comprehension, et cetera. But they didn’t want to do that. They wanted to study those things on their own and get back to the burning issues.
Q: You were always trying to get students to respond to literature, not just to analyze. Isn’t that kind of a teaching philosophy?
A: Yeah. And that’s exactly what D.H. Lawrence would say: Feel it on your pulse, write it hot. I’d play music for them all the time, all different kinds, and ask them what was the temperature of the music, where’d it come from? When things in the classroom are going well, you feel yourself trembling, the hair on your back rising.
Q: Do you ever miss teaching?
A: Yeah, I do. Because if you have ideas about what’s going on in the world, you can talk to kids about them. You can develop ideas about poetry and everything else under the sun. You’re always fresh. That’s the difference between being a policeman or a firefighter. They’re dealing with the darker side. But when your teaching is going well, walking into the classroom is like walking into a garden.
A version of this article appeared in the November 01, 2005 edition of Teacher as In the Garden