For 30 years Frank McCourt taught high school English in
New York City and for much of that time he considered
himself a fraud.
During these years he danced a delicate
jig between engaging the students, satisfying often
bewildered administrators and parents, and actually
enjoying his job. He tried to present a consistent image
of composure and self-confidence, yet he regularly felt
insecure, inadequate, and unfocused. After much trial
and error, he eventually discovered what was in front of
him (or rather, behind him) all along--his own
experience. "My life saved my life," he writes. "My
students didn't know there was a man up there escaping a
cocoon of Irish history and Catholicism, leaving bits of
that cocoon everywhere."
At the beginning of his career
it had never occurred to him that his own dismal
upbringing in the slums of Limerick could be turned into
a valuable lesson plan. Indeed, his formal training
emphasized the opposite. Principals and department heads
lectured him to never share anything personal. He was
instructed to arouse fear and awe, to be stern, to be
impossible to please--but he couldn't do it. McCourt was
too likable, too interested in the students' lives, and
too willing to reveal himself for their benefit as well
as his own. He was a kindred spirit with more questions
than answers: "Look at me: wandering late bloomer,
floundering old fart, discovering in my forties what my
students knew in their teens."
As he did so adroitly
in his previous memoirs, Angela's
Ashes and 'Tis,
McCourt manages to uncover humor in nearly everything.
He writes about hilarious misfires, as when he suggested
(during his teacher's exam) that the students write a
suicide note, as well as unorthodox assignments that
turned into epiphanies for both teacher and students. A
dazzling writer with a unique and compelling voice,
McCourt describes the dignity and difficulties of a
largely thankless profession with incisive,
self-deprecating wit and uncommon perception. It may
have taken him three decades to figure out how to be an
effective teacher, but he ultimately saved his most
valuable lesson for himself: how to be his own man.
an urgent tribute to teachers everywhere.