From The Hip
It is the absurd, unremitting poverty that most people remember from Frank McCourt's blockbuster book, Angela's Ashes: children so poor they had to recycle bicycle tires for the soles of their shoes, a family so strapped they tore down their apartment walls for firewood. But McCourt's memoir of his youth in Limerick, Ireland, was also about his growing awareness that he had a knack for language. One of his first jobs, in his teens, was writing intimidating letters, full of bogus legalese, on behalf of a woman who sold cut-rate clothes to the poor. When he discovered her dead one evening, he stole money from her purse to help pay his way to the States.
'Tis opens with the 19-year-old McCourt on a freighter steaming away from Ireland, bound for New York. Once there, after serving in the Army and unloading frozen meat from trucks to pay his rent, he talks his way into New York University--he never went to high school--and winds up an English teacher. By McCourt's count, he taught 10,000 people over the next 30 years in the city's high schools and community colleges.
Before the release of 'Tis this fall, McCourt spoke with Teacher Magazine contributor Christopher Shea about teaching, "bullshit writing," and his next book.
Q. You taught in a wide range of schools--from a vocational high school, McKee, to one of the most rigorous magnet schools in New York City, Stuyvesant. Which one suited you best?
A. The first one, McKee, broke me in. That's where I was forced into the role of schoolmaster. By the time I got to Stuyvesant, I was more comfortable in the classroom. But then I had to adjust to the fact that students' notebooks were out, their pens were poised, and I didn't have to tell them to stop throwing bologna sandwiches, or asking for a pass, or falling in love. They were ready to work. And I thought, Oh, Jesus, now I have to teach. What am I going to say to them?
Q.In the 'Tis excerpt here, you toss away McKee's required curriculum and teach Shakespeare. What was the significance of that episode in your evolution as a teacher?
A. It showed I should listen to my instincts. Usually Shakespeare was considered a form of punishment. There's always a test--a multiple-choice test. And students feel threatened. I didn't give them a test; I said, We'll just read it and enjoy it. They had never read anything like Shakespeare. But I think they were flattered at the idea that they might be reading the ultimate English writer.
As a teacher, you have to find your own way in the classroom, your own style. But you're often discouraged from that by the principals and the assistant principals and all kinds of bureaucrats, who themselves are inexperienced teachers. They want to control everything. They want to keep the lid on.
Q. It doesn't sound as if your studies at NYU were helpful in learning how to handle a classroom.
A. No. Who is teaching at NYU--these people who are supposedly experts on education? They've never set foot in a high school. They wouldn't know a teenager if one walked up and spit on them.
Q. 'Tis has several vivid classroom scenes. One, at Stuyvesant, has students scribbling the names of cartoon characters on the blackboard and comparing them to mythical figures. In another, the kids are singing TV theme songs. Were you really as free-form as that?
A. I was. It's what they call shoot-from-the- hip teaching. One teacher called me a ham, which pissed me off a little. She was a very disciplined type, and she'd go down the hall with her textbooks clutched to her bosom and a big canvas bag swinging from her shoulder. She was so rigid--she was terrified there might be a minute during the class that might be loose and she might have to deal with it. I found that I would know what I wanted to do once the class started.
Q.You inspired students by having them write personal essays--sometimes very personal essays in which they discussed traumatic issues. Some people might think that is cutting too close to the bone.
A. They could have made it fiction if they had wanted to. They could have done anything. Who knows if it was true or not? Some of them used to wear me out with their science fiction stories, filled with some damned machine. "The XX-41 roared into space"--that kind of stuff. It would put us all to sleep.
With writing, you start with what you know. I tried to have a lot of them write about their grandparents. A lot of the kids were Jewish, and their grandparents were Holocaust survivors or had died in the Holocaust. They began to write about that. I told them how precious that story was--or any immigrant's story, or any story of the family.
I could have put an orange on my desk--as one teacher told me to do--and said, Describe the orange. But I think that is bullshit writing.
Q.In 'Tis, you bring up the subject of professional jealousy when you discuss the Lion's Head Bar, which was frequented by well-known writers. You observe, pointedly, that no one turned to the teacher to ask his opinion on anything. Do you get angry about the status of teachers?
A. All the time. I think it's one of the great disgraces in American life that teachers are treated like downstairs maids. There's no respect for teachers.
If you look at any television show where they are discussing the "terrible state of American education," there's always some professor from a university, some guy from a think tank, and a politician. But never ever--never ever!--a teacher. Teachers are the ones with the stories. It's like discussing surgery without a surgeon.
Q. 'Tis ends in 1985. Is there going to be another book?
A. A novel. So that I can deal with all the things I didn't deal with in 'Tis. I'll have greater liberty. So many things happened in the classroom and in the schools that I couldn't actually recount.
Q. What did you hold back?
A. Moments in the classroom, things that went on with teachers, emotional things, love affairs. You know--the usual stuff, the gossipy stuff. But I'm mostly interested in what goes on in the classroom between teachers and kids, what teaching is--the chemistry of a classroom. I have a sense of urgency about my discoveries, which I can pass on to young English teachers, or to teachers in general--that sense of excitement and enthusiasm that I had.
Vol. 11, Issue 2, Page 37Published in Print: October 1, 1999, as From The Hip