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Taking it to school

An Irish guide to teaching

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Fans of Frank McCourt's miserable Irish childhood might want to tread cautiously on his third memoir installment, Teacher Man. Fret not, McCourt's requisite Celtic gloom and his self-flagellating voice are as distinct as ever. It's just that after Angela's Ashes (the book, the movie, the Happy Meal), we know young Frankie of Irish destitution is now safe in the bosom of post-war New York, where want is present, but in a subtler form.

And yet, even if the consequences are less dire, this self-anointed "Mick of the moment" provides lavish helpings of self-doubt, self-loathing and self-absorption. In Teacher Man, McCourt has become a New Yorker in a big way, brimming with class envy, status anxiety and an open-minded embrace of humanity.

Teacher Man chronicles McCourt's 30 years teaching high school in New York City's public schools. In this vivid telling, his career was of a teacher loved, but never feared. From his debut at a vocational high school in Staten Island, through itinerant substituting to Manhattan's elite Stuyvesant School, McCourt taught writing and grammar to kids who would've preferred doing anything else.

Originally attempted as a novel, Teacher Man isn't the most compelling of narratives. Noticeably absent here is the broad, triumphant narrative arc of the oppressed immigrant who gets lost and then found in America. Instead, we have a literary striver stuck in the classroom, doing his best but never at peace.

Naturally, McCourt mocks his own self-pity and delusions of grandeur, but this grows tedious. In Angela's Ashes, it was less noticeable because how could you not feel his pain? The deadbeat alcoholic dad, the ineffectual mother, the baby brothers dropping dead of hunger. If that wasn't enough, there was the less celebrated aspects of Irish culture, i.e., the twins of a state-sponsored religion and a suffocating nationalism. Teaching high school would surely seem like a step up from all this. Sure, McCourt's not living like a Gotham prince, but neither is he foraging for mutton scraps. Or hooking freight in a Manhattan warehouse -- a gig that, with the GI bill, put him through college.

When Teacher Man takes a break from teaching, it becomes a mid-life crisis story about being caught between a childhood with no choices and an adulthood with many. As a working class Irish immigrant, McCourt's decision to become a teacher instead of, say, a traditional Irish job like cop or fireman, is a transgression hard to fully understand a half-century later. And yet, it seems McCourt wasn't transgressive enough. Reconnoitering with literary friends like writer Pete Hamill, he longed to scratch an itch he could hardly admit he had. So it was the classroom where he projected his yearning to surly students who invariably sound like Archie Bunker boilerplates.

Too much time is devoted to the author recounting naive expectations of an American life that exists exclusively in Hollywood montages and apparel catalogues. When McCourt steps beyond that, however, he delivers a mine of stories rarely told with any degree of authenticity; namely, what actually goes on in a classroom.

An important job, a thankless job, and an enriching profession that won't make you rich. It never fully satisfied Frank McCourt, but perhaps that's because he was always a writer playing a teacher, playing an Irishman in America.

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