Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Book #26 (5K #3): 'Teacher Man' by Frank McCourt

"I was more than a teacher. And less. In the high school classroom you are a drill sergeant, a rabbi, a shoulder to cry on, a disciplinarian, a singer, a low-level scholar, a clerk, a referee, a clown, a counselor, a dress-code enforcer, a conductor, an apologist, a philosopher, a collaborator, a tap dancer, a politician, a therapist, a fool, a traffic cop, a priest, a mother-father-brother-sister-uncle-aunt, a bookkeeper, a psychologist-the last straw."

I've wanted to be a teacher for as long as I can remember. Since I was in 2nd grade, I think. I started full-time teaching in 2006, fresh out of college and having no idea what the hell I was doing. I don't want to give a recitation of my life, so I'll just say this: teaching can be exhausting, frustrating, and unbelievably cool.

And Frank McCourt knows exactly how it is. That's why this book is so, so, so good. I think I didn't stop grinning once while I read it. It's fantastic.

'Teacher Man' is the third part of McCourt's memoirs, which began with the magnificent Angela's Ashes, where he tells of his miserable childhood in Ireland. In the second book, 'Tis, McCourt tells of his teenage years, when he returned to America (where he was born) and worked a variety of jobs before settling into teaching. In Teacher Man he covers his entire teaching career, from his beginnings as an english teacher in a low-class school in New York City, to the day he retires--it's after that that he began to write Angela's Ashes.

It's an amazing story, really, because up until he became famous for Angela's Ashes, McCourt was only a poor English teacher with a deep sense of inferiority and bad self-esteem. So his story isn't one of fantastic adventures and great battles: he's just a guy who had a terrible childhood and who then became a High School English teacher.

It doesn't sound like something that would really hold your interest, but McCourt is an amazing, gifted writer. He's sincere and self-deprecating, hardly believing that he managed to overcome his childhood. Even when he's sunk into the deepest of miseries, he holds to his uproarious sense of humor, loving every story, telling it as if he can't believe he's telling it at all. And he knows teaching is a constant battle: one that sometimes leaves you defeated, and that sometimes leaves you feeling like you're the king of the world. It's not Robin Williams in The Dead Poets Society. It's tough, but you love it, and maybe once in a while you can make a difference in somebody's life.

I loved this book. Absolutely loved it. McCourt has a unique, captivating style that's just plain touching and as funny as anything I've ever read. Even if you're not a teacher, you'll find something you recognize in it. You'll remember your own teachers and your own high school years. It'll crack you up, and hopefully it will make you go a little easier on teachers.

If you are a teacher, my sympathy and my admiration go out to you. And please, read this book.

"The classroom is a place of high drama. You'll never know what you've done to, or for,the hundreds coming and going. You see them leaving the classroom: dreamy, flat, sneering, admiring, smiling, puzzled...You are with the kids and, as long as you want to be a teacher, there's no escape. Don't expect help from the people who've escaped the classroom, the higher-ups. They're busy going to lunch and thinking higher thoughts. It's you and the kids. So, there's the bell. See you later. Find what you love and do it."

See? Genius. I was almost crying at that.

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