Friday, April 20, 2007

"Teacher Man"

My reading group's book for April was Teacher Man, by Frank McCourt (of Angela's Ashes fame). It is the account of Mr. McCourt's years (about 30 of 'em, beginning in 1958) teaching English and creative writing in various New York City high schools, from the vocational/technical (McKee) to the top-notch academic (Stuyvesant). He approaches the subject with a good dose of jadedness. From the Prologue:

In America, doctors, lawyers, generals, actors, television people and politicians are admired and rewarded. Not teachers. Teaching is the downstairs maid of professions. Teachers are told to use the service door or go around the back. They are congratulated on having ATTO (All That Time Off). They are spoken of patronizingly and patted, retroactively, on their silvery locks. Oh, yes, I had an English teacher, Miss Smith, who really inspired me. I'll never forget dear old Miss Smith. She used to say that if she reached one child in her forty years of teaching it would make it all worth-while. She'd die happy. The inspiring English teacher then fades into gray shadows to eke out her days on a penny-pinching pension, dreaming of the one child she might have reached. Dream on, teacher. You will not be celebrated.

Hmmm. Is this jadedness or wallowing? Hard to tell. And it remains hard to tell throughout. It's a fine line.

In its favor: this book contains slices of life both lovely and sad, captured through a few sentences' dialogue or description that are absolute gems. The black girl whose sister got arrested for "liberating two pork chops from the store," while white women routinely steal steaks unnoticed. The boy who dines on veal medallions, alone at the polished mahogany table beneath a crystal chandelier, while his father lies dying of cancer in the hospital. The Jewish boy who knows with contented certainty that his calling is to be a farmer, much to the despair of his father the rabbi. We are there. We know these kids. It's good writing.

Against: Teacher Man has sort of a babbly style that doesn't appeal to me. It's hard to know what to do, as a reader, with the mess of McCourt's personal life as related here. His peculiar mix of egotism and self-loathing makes too much of this memoir a distractingly uncomfortable read.

Still, I bet his creative writing classes at Stuyvesant were fabulous.

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