Sunday, May 18, 2008

Teacher Man by Frank McCourt

Teacher Man by Frank McCourt

I finished reading Teacher Man, by Frank McCourt for the second time on May 28, 2007. I know, because it is an entry in my journal. It took about a week to read. Frank McCourt teaches by telling his class stories about his miserable childhood.

Why is he telling stories? Do they work? According to Frank, he tells them because the students con him into it, so he won’t do “real” teaching. It’s probably not effective for teaching English grammar, but anything is grist for the creative writing mill. He doesn’t teach creative writing at McKee. It’s a vocational high school. My Aunt Bridget went there. He teaches creative writing at Stuyvesant and Seward.

How is it he knows Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon and can’t tell a student why Shakespeare wrote the way he did?

Owens and Sassoon are war poets. They were relevant to McCourt’s experience. Shakespeare wrote in Elizabethan English. McCourt doesn’t seem to be well grounded in the history of English literature before the Modern era.

In what way does Teacher Man extend and develop our image of Frank as a person? What are your feelings toward Frank as a child?

Frank the child is at the mercy of adults. In Frank the teacher, the roles are reversed. He finds that Frank the adult is at the mercy of the children and his supervisors. He is caught in the middle. He succeeds. I can identify. In my career, I’ve had to define success for myself. I’ve never won the Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine, but I survived. I decided survival is success. I look back at the fate of others I knew in graduate school. Not all survived. It isn’t easy. Frank’s ultimate success was as a writer, rather than as a teacher of writing. He won the Pulitzer Prize for Angela’s Ashes. He was in his sixties when he made the big time, retired from his thirty-year teaching career. Most writers he knew peaked in their thirties. In an interview, he said, “If I had won the prize earlier, I would have been dead by now of alcohol and fornication.”

What do these terms mean: amadauns, acusula, seanachies?

Amadauns are fools. We had a teacher in high school, Brother P. We gave him a hard time, at least that’s how he felt about it. We probably treated him the same as we did all of the other teachers, but he perceived it as hostile. He called us amadauns, but each student is an individual. The boy who sat in front of me in Brother P’s English class was Tom V. I read in the alumni newsletter that he is a drummer and a DJ. He plays what are now oldies, but were contemporary rock and roll back then. I should phone him. He still lives on Staten Island.

Acushla is a heartbeat. Listen to the sound. I can hear the heart valves opening and closing. It’s a term of endearment. The dictionary translates it as “darling,” but I feel “my heart” captures it better.

Seanachies are storytellers. They taught in the hedgerow schools in Ireland, preserving the Irish legends when the English were insisting that everyone speak the King’s tongue.

Whose side of the pedagogy question are you on?

I’m for what works. What makes one a better mechanic, teacher, scientist, citizen, soldier, parent or writer? What makes one a better friend? That’s what we have to learn and teach. We’re still finding the way. Frank did some experiments. Sometimes they worked; sometimes they didn’t.

Even when I was small, eight or nine, I wondered why people won’t stop bothering people and I’ve been wondering since.

That’s Frank’s recurring theme, his mantra. It’s why “Little Bo Peep” is his favorite poem. “Leave them alone and they’ll come home…” He can recite a litany of insults from years gone by and agrees with most of them. This parallels the examination of conscience, in which the list is the ten commandments, to which Catholics have added lesser offenses. The mere thinking about sinning is a sin in itself.

Do you believe his stories?

In a class on memoir that I took at Gemini Ink, Naomi Shihab Nye, the instructor, asked, “Does memoir have to be all true, or can you fill in the missing parts with whatever fits?” I said, “You have to be true to the story.” That’s the extent to which I believe Frank’s stories.

What would you have done if you had taught his first class?

As I recall, it was on sentence structure. I would have diagrammed, because that’s what I was taught. Since then, I’ve had a course on linguistics, so I would talk about context-sensitive and context-free languages. I would use Groucho Marx’s example, “Time flies like an arrow. Fruit flies like a banana.” What is the subject, the predicate, the object? Which words are nouns, verbs, modifiers? Today we have naming of parts.


Amanda said...

This must be a good book if you read it a year ago and then read it again just now, and apparently at some other unspecified point in the past, too. I haven't yet attempted to read Frank McCourt's work, maybe I'll have to do that.

Amanda said...

ps - I recognize this essay!!