Among School Children, McCourt Got Schooled

As he will be the first to tell you, Frank McCourt almost failed the exam to become a teacher in the New York City schools. "A passing grade was 65. I scored a 69," he recalls over a bowl of oatmeal one recent morning in a Manhattan diner. What saved his bacon was the teaching demonstration. He was assigned to teach a class on the World War I poets Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen, and, as he tells it in his latest memoir, "Teacher Man," a girl in the class began talking about her brother-in-law who'd come home from Korea with no arms--"and all he ever wanted was sex. Sex, sex, sex." Things went downhill from there, but something about McCourt's effort so impressed the English department chairman sitting in judgment that he chased him down the street to say if he ever needed a job, he should just call. But by the time he did, a few weeks later, the man had died. McCourt went back to his job on the waterfront docks. It would be months before he'd land the low-rung assignment of teaching English at McKee Vocational and Technical High School on Staten Island. He felt like a failure before he'd even taught a day.

McCourt has a genius for turning bad luck into good stories. His first two memoirs--"Angela's Ashes," the Pulitzer Prize-winning account of his "miserable Irish childhood," and the follow-up, " 'Tis"--have sold more than 6.3 million copies. With "Teacher Man," he charts the bumpy but illuminating journey he took as a New York City high-school teacher that meandered from vocational school to Stuyvesant, New York's most prestigious high school, where his classes were so popular that a colleague once exclaimed, "Why don't they just let him teach in Yankee Stadium?" Full of gritty specifics, never preachy, often hilarious, McCourt's third book thrusts you right into the hormones-and-catcalls chaos of the classroom--where learning is not just a mystery but a flat-out miracle. Along the way, we get the best self-portrait of a public-school teacher ever written. And never mind the happy ending. What you'll remember are the indelibly funny/sad scenes of a quivering youth trying to figure out how to become a man at ease with himself.

Lean, bright-eyed and paler than the oatmeal on the table before him, McCourt, at 75, now seems comfortable in his own skin. But it took him years, he says, to get there. Miserably insecure when he walked into his first classroom in 1958, he stumbled for half of his 30 years of teaching before he found his footing. "Teaching is like writing," he says. "You have to find your tone. And you have to tell the truth. If you put on a mask, they'll find you out every time." In McCourt's case, even the parents found him out--at least at first--like the mom on parents' night who said, "I asked my kid what he learned in school an' he tells me stories about Ireland... You know what you are? A fraud, a goddam fraud. And I'm saying that with the best intentions, trying to help."

Looking back, does McCourt see a pattern to his life? He quickly replies, "Learning. The fog falls away before me. I'm not claiming wisdom, but when you learn that you're always learning, you're liberated. That's what I was doing in the classroom." "Teacher Man" puts us all in that classroom with him, hearing how kids really learn and what it takes to make that happen. For McCourt, it meant throwing away the lesson plan, teaching nursery rhymes and recipes along with poems and novels. It meant coming out from behind the desk and making collaborators of his students. When they saw that he would do literally anything to get them to learn, they responded. Now he's told the tale of that experience so well that when you've finished it, you don't envy him. You envy his students.