Sunday, July 26, 2009

Frank McCourt: A writer for the working-class

During the time that I have been listening to Frank McCourt’s Teacher Man on CD, a book about his teaching days, the American-Irish writer and Pulitzer Prize-winner passed away.

I knew very little about McCourt until recently. I knew that he had become a darling of the Oprah Winfrey Book Club set for his memoir, Angela’s Ashes, a book I had resisted reading on several occasions.

When my wife handed me Teacher Man on CD, I thought I’d give it a try. While a best seller and well received, Teacher Man tends not to receive the universal accolades that accompany Angela’s Ashes. Like Angela’s Ashes, it is a memoir, but it primarily details McCourt’s teaching experiences, and many of the difficulties that accompany those experiences. Since public education is an ongoing subject of interest for me, given my day job duties as a workforce trainer, I figured McCourt might provide me with additional fodder on the shortcomings endemic in public school education.

What I found out listening to McCourt’s book on teaching was that he and I shared some commonality. I learned that he didn’t begin his writing career until much later in life, well beyond the age when most authors publish their first book. Secondly, he wasn’t your typical celebrity author. He was a genuine working-class stiff, who happened to find an audience for his storytelling, and the wealth of material that he’d accumulated from living his life, and teaching for 30 years, in New York City’s public schools.

For those who have read his memoir, you’ll know the details. Born in poverty in Brooklyn, his immigrant parents decided to return to Ireland during the Great Depression, because they were unable to find work. Returning to Limerick, where his mother was from, young Frank nearly died of typhoid fever when he was ten years old. The family was beset with crushing poverty during Frank’s time in Ireland.

At 19, he returned to the U.S., joined the Army, went to Korea, and was stationed in Germany for much of his hitch. The Army provided him with access to higher education through the GI Bill, and young Frank was able to enroll at New York University, taking classes at night, while performing difficult manual labor during the day, on the docks along the harbor. He eventually got his Master’s degree from Brooklyn College, and became an English teacher, first at McKee Technical High School, in Brooklyn. Later he would go on to teach in other schools, including prestigious Stuyvesant High School

McCourt’s narrative details the difficulties of teaching American students—essentially bored and boorish—who don’t give a damn about Shakespeare, Emerson, and Thoreau. This was only compounded with the technical high students, who were forced to take English to graduate, but for these future plumbers, auto mechanics, and other skilled trades, English didn’t have an obvious application.

Teacher Man for me was about how McCourt used his intuition to craft exercises, as well as his gift as a storyteller to capture his student’s interest, and impart as much grammar, and writing craft to his students, as possible. His skill and ability for doing this wasn’t always appreciated by his principals and other administrators. For his efforts in engagement and instruction, McCourt was shown the door by educational bureaucrats.

One particular example of this was when he had his students begin accumulating recipes to bring to class. He then had students read these recipes, while other students—gifted musicians—composed scores to accompany the reading. For this creativity, McCourt once more drew the ire of an administrator, with his theories and intellectual understanding of pedagogy, but no real practical idea how to translate it into actual instruction that imparted an iota of knowledge and something that students would take away for later.

When McCourt was teaching upwards of 150 to 175 English students a day in public high school, he had little energy, or desire to work on his own writing at night. The sheer volume of essays and papers to grade by themselves were more than enough to take over his evenings. This is the duality that many talented writers face; making a living from some other means, while keeping the flame of one’s writing alive. McCourt, for all his talent and eventual recognition, couldn’t accomplish this while he was working full-time. McCourt was awarded his Pulitzer, for Angela’s Ashes, at the age of 67.

This book helped put some of my own frustrations in perspective. I’ve been fortunate to continue to write as much as I can while maintaining an increasingly demanding day job. Last year, I managed to launch a second book, spending nearly every free moment from January, until June, working on my project. I’ve also managed to do a bit of consulting work for several other writers, helping them get their own book ideas to market, or steering them towards a better manuscript.

Currently, I’ve moved away from any self-imposed deadlines, choosing to focus on writing longer essays, which eventually will find their way into what will be a varied collection of essays, and a new book.

Frank McCourt is a reminder that books have their own timing. You can only force your writing so far. While I continue to burn the candle at both ends, the craft of writing is often found flourishing when given time, space, and some breathing room from life’s immediacies. That’s not to say that you can’t write evenings and on weekends (between mowing the lawn, fixing the sink, and vacuuming the house), but having the luxury of being able to throw yourself fulltime into your writing projects is probably the optimal road to success.

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