JACKI LYDEN, host:
Writer Frank McCourt has become famous for many things, being Irish, having a miserable Irish childhood, being the author of "Angela's Ashes" and its sequel, "'Tis." You might think if everyone in America has had their 15 minutes of fame, McCourt has had about 25 minutes, but McCourt was also a teacher in the New York public school system for 30 years. In the first decade or so were in tough industrial high schools, schools with problems that are still familiar. Thousands upon thousands of students passed in front of him during those years. He figures about 12,000. Frank McCourt's new book is called "Teacher Man," and we welcome him into the studio now.
Hello, Frank McCourt.
Mr. FRANK McCOURT ("Teacher Man"): Thank you, Jacki. Hello.
LYDEN: "Teacher Man" is an amusing and grim chronicle both.
Mr. McCOURT: Huh.
LYDEN: Maybe you like--yeah.
Mr. McCOURT: That's one of the characteristics of the Irish. They used to call this smiling through your tears.
LYDEN: Tell me about McKee Technical High School on Staten Island, the first place you ever taught...
Mr. McCOURT: Yeah.
LYDEN: ...back in 1958.
Mr. McCOURT: I couldn't get a job anywhere else. The speech bureau at the Board of Educations questioned my foreignism, my brogue so to speak, that they didn't want their children coming home sound like Barry Fitzgerald or Maureen O'Hara in those days. So I finally--they were so desperate for teachers in vocation high schools and everybody told me, `If you're going into teaching, don't even think about going into a vocation high school. They'll kill you.' The movie out at that time was "The Black Board Jungle."
LYDEN: So did they kill you?
Mr. McCOURT: All I can say is they made a man of me or they made a teacher of me or they made something of me. The main thing was that I survived classrooms in a vocation high school when many people fled for the hills and became investment bankers. But I hung on there, I suppose, because I had moments of great triumph and illumination along the way. And there's nothing like that. When you finally hit it with a bunch of teen-agers, it's paradise.
LYDEN: Talk about how you did that. Is there something from the book that you want to read...
Mr. McCOURT: Well...
LYDEN: ...that would illustrate that or a tale you have?
Mr. McCOURT: ...I'll read you the--what I'm talking about, the opening. My second day at McKee, a boy asked question that sends me into the past and colors the way that I teach for the next 30 years.
(Reading) `Joey Santos calls out, "Yo, teach." "You are not to call out. You are to raise your hand." "Yeah, yeah," said Joey. "Yeah, yeah." They had a way of saying `yeah, yeah,' that tells you they're barely tolerating you. "Yo, teacher man." "Call me Mr. McCourt." "Yeah, OK. So you Scot or something?" Joey is the mouth. There's one in every class along with the complainer, the clown, the goody-goody, the beauty queen, the volunteer for everything, the jerk. It's the job of the mouth to ask questions, anything to keep the teacher from the boring lesson. "No, I'm not Scot. I'm Irish." "Oh, yeah, what's Irish?" "Irish is whatever comes out of Ireland." "Like St. Patrick, right?" "Well, no, not exactly." And this is the stage of the telling of the story of St. Patrick which keeps us away from the boring English lesson which leads to other questions. "Yo, teacher man," Joey again. "Did you go out with girls in Ireland?" "No, damnit, sheep. We went out with sheep. What do you think we went out with?"' And the class exploded and they went home and told their parents that afternoon, oh, this teacher, this new Irish teacher went out with sheep.
LYDEN: You did hit upon strategies that at least one nasty administrator called pedagogical paydirt. I mean, you did work to connect with him. Will you tell us how?
Mr. McCOURT: Well, I had to overcome the resistance. Two main things: grammar and poetry. And I was always racking my brains, `How do you overcome the resistance to grammar?' They say, `Oh, all these rules, who makes up all these rules?' And I said, `Well, you know, psychology is the study of the way human beings behave. Grammar is the study of the way the language behaves.' `Oh, yeah? Language behaves?' `Yeah, it behaves. When you're out in the street, you talk one way; when you're at home, another way. There's formal English, informal English, colloquial English and then down there is what you use all the time outside the school, obscenity.' And they were fascinated with that, how language changes from place to place, from time to time. Down the centuries, words changed. We--I got into all of that. I think the main thing was to put them at ease and take away the threat of that awful thing called the quiz, the test, the exam.
LYDEN: I love the part about you assigning them excuses 'cause you read so many forged letters...
Mr. McCOURT: Yeah.
LYDEN: ...so many great excuses.
Mr. McCOURT: It's the first thing in the morning. They're coming in with their excuse notes. I used to throw them into a drawer and then I realized I looked at the writing which was classical American proses. They wrote in excuse notes in the way they never did when I assigned them an essay or a story. And then I typed them up and I handed them out. I handed out copies. And they read them and they said, `What's this?' I said, `They're excuse notes.' `Oh, yeah, who wrote them?' I said, `You did.' And I assigned them an excuse note from Adam to God, blaming Eve for what went on or from Eve to God blaming Adam. They're all excuse notes for their behavior. Then after that, I hit on the bright idea of having them write obituaries. I had them write their own obituary. I think they all died peacefully in bed. One girl died surrounded by the Kennedy family which Jack Kennedy came back from his grave at Arlington to come stand by her bed, you know, and Jackie Kennedy--they were all there. Then I had them write obituaries of teachers. No teacher died peacefully in bed.
LYDEN: I think it's every teacher's hope and I know that it was yours, you know, from reading here even though you have wonderful phrases here. You know, `They turn their pages as though they're made of lead.' Were there students who you connected with, students who you hear from today...
Mr. McCOURT: Yeah.
LYDEN: ...who you never thought you'd ever hear from again?
Mr. McCOURT: I was out in Los Angeles the other night and I was doing a reading at one of the bookstores and this tall man, bald with a fringe of silver hair said, `I was in your first class at McKee High School. That was in 1958.' `David Wagner,' he said. And I remembered him. I remembered his moppy hair when he had it and he said, `We liked you because you were the only one who laughed over what we did with Ms. Lancashire's car.' Then I had this rather vague. They didn't like Ms. Lancashire and they were geniuses in this department. They hoisted her car into a tree...
LYDEN: Oh, my God.
Mr. McCOURT: ...near the school. And I said, `How did you do that, David?' You know, he--and he said, `You were the only teacher who laughed.' I said, `You can be bloody sure, David, when they went home they laughed. They didn't want to laugh before the kids.' But I couldn't help but laughing, and I said, `I was admiring your mastery of physics...'
Mr. McCOURT: `...your mastery of hoist and pulleys and leverage and everything else.' He said, `Nobody could figure out how we did it.'
LYDEN: What did the kids give you that you carry away with you? What sort of confidence, what kind of maturity?
Mr. McCOURT: Well, first of all, their insistence, even though they didn't articulate it, their insistence on honesty. They'd say, `Oh, Mr. McCourt, that's not what you said last Wednesday,' and that I found was the big, big, if you want to call it, weapon in teaching and to admit also what you didn't know when you didn't know.
LYDEN: Well, as you apparently once told a student, `I have no rivers of repentance...'
Mr. McCOURT: Yeah.
LYDEN: `...running down my cheeks,' this has been grand.
Mr. McCOURT: Yeah.
LYDEN: It's really been good.
Mr. McCOURT: It's a pleasure, Jacki. Thank you.
LYDEN: Frank McCourt. His new memoir is called "Teacher Man." And there's more about how Frank McCourt came to write "Teacher Man" in an excerpt from the book at our Web site, npr.org.
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