By Frank McCourt
Scribner; Largeprint edition (December 6, 2005)
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.
About the Author
Frank McCourt returned to America when he was nineteen. For many years, he was an English teacher at Stuyvesant High School in New York City. He now lives in Connecticut.