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New Book Shows Author’s Roots as Teacher Man
By Dr. Melvyn H. Schreiber
The Daily News
Galveston, Texas
Published March 12, 2006

Frank McCourt’s Pulitzer Prize-winning memoir of his childhood in Limerick, Ireland, “Angela’s Ashes,” thrust him upon the popular literary scene at the unlikely age of 66, about 10 years ago. Everybody read it and commiserated with the awfulness of his childhood and his amazing recovery. Born in the United States, he moved to Ireland, where he spent his childhood, returning to the United States as a young man. This memoir tells what he did with his life between the time he returned to America and the time he became a literary star.

What he did was teach English in the technical high schools of New York. His Irish brogue endeared him to some, made him unintelligible to others. But the whole idea of learning to speak and write correct English was lost on most of his adolescent students, lost themselves in the adventures and dangers of puberty. Most would become plumbers, electricians, carpenters and other skilled laborers, and most could see little worth in the proper use of the semicolon or learning to parse sentences.

What was a teacher to do? He was supposed to keep control of the class, to maintain order and discipline and to open their heads, pour in some English and send them away better educated.

But that takes more than just the knowledge and experience of the teacher; it takes willingness on the part of the students and cooperation on the part of the parents. Those things he rarely had, and just getting the attention of his classes was a monumental chore. But this book tells how he solved that problem, and others, during 30 years of dealing with students whose interest in learning English was marginal or absent.

He told them stories about his youth in Ireland, used whatever device he could to concentrate and focus their attention. He asked them to bring recipes to class, to recite them aloud, to set them to music and sing them. He allowed them to write letters asking excuses for historical figures. Knowing that the students themselves wrote most of the excuses they brought from home, allegedly written and signed by their parents, to excuse their absences, he set them to writing excuses, explanation, even apologies for the misdeeds of well-known figures.

The object was to maintain control and order while attracting the interest of the students in some redeemable feat of learning. He caught plenty of hell from the administration of the school and plenty of hell from some of the parents, who expected their children to be learning something else.

He moved from school to school, teaching for a while in a junior college, but returning finally to technical high schools where, at last, he made his mark and received the praise of students and administrators alike.

Storytelling was the source of his salvation, and he got his students to imitate his imaginative and spirited style. He tells his story with verve and energy and heartbreaking honesty, including his rocky marriage, his failed attempt to get a doctoral degree at Trinity College, Dublin, and his propensity to talk back to his superiors.

In the process of the telling, he reminds us of the low esteem in which teachers are held in America. “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 spoken of patronizingly and patted, retroactively on their silvery locks. Teachers are occasionally celebrated by a grateful student or two, but never by society.”

Here’s another sample of his prose, part of a memory of his Catholic upbringing and instruction: “The nuns didn’t care whether you went to heaven or hell or married a Protestant as long as your handwriting was clear and handsome, and if you were weak in that department, they’d bend your thumb back until you screamed for mercy and promised a calligraphy that would open the doors of heaven.”

McCourt now writes and speaks for a living. “Teacher Man” will show you why.

Next week: “The Sea,” by John Banville.

Dr. Melvyn H. Schreiber is a physician who lives and works in Galveston.

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