Frank McCourt came out of nowhere to achieve literary stardom at the age of 66, when Angela's Ashes, a memoir about his hardscrabble Irish upbringing, became one of those rare books to top critics' and bestseller lists alike. It turns out that "nowhere"—or at least 30 years of it—was the labyrinthine New York City public school system, which could have swallowed the spirit of a lesser man. McCourt's wise, measured, and blessedly unpretentious new book Teacher Man gives a brisk anecdotal history of his adventures in the teaching profession, from his naïve beginnings at a vocational school to his inspired stint at New York's esteemed Stuyvesant High. All those years have given him a fine sense of perspective: Neither a lecture about the ails of the system, a piece of sub-Mitch Albom inspirational hooey about the shaping of young minds, nor a manual for other greenhorns entering the profession, Teacher Man simply recounts the vivid particulars of his experience without drawing too many conclusions about it.
When McCourt took his first job as an English teacher at McKee Vocational and Technical High in Staten Island, he was still a fresh-off-the-boat Irishman, in spite of several years in the States working on the docks and scraping his way to a college degree. Even if his thick brogue hadn't betrayed his foreignness, the ghosts of his past as a dirt-poor Limerick kid still loomed large. Assigned to teach spelling and grammar to the future plumbers and tradesmen of America, McCourt was easily steered away from the curriculum by his students, who distracted him with personal questions. (Little did they know they were being treated to an informal reading of Angela's Ashes decades before publication.) After McKee, McCourt bounced around various vocational schools and even a community college before finally landing at Stuyvesant, which allowed him the flexibility to bring quirky innovations to his creative-writing classes.
Thousands of students appeared before McCourt over the course of his career, from fellow immigrants with working-class backgrounds and aspirations to more privileged kids bound for the Ivy League, but he bears no false illusions about the impact he had on their lives. Mainly, he just tells stories, like the time he chaperoned 29 rowdy black girls on a Times Square movie-theater trip in 1968, or the Chinese student who learned the English language from Fred Astaire musicals like Top Hat. Some of his tales detour so far from the thread that a joyless editor might have cut them, such as his story about how touring a Protestant university for graduate school involved bedding an obese Irish barmaid. Others are more illustrative of his teaching style, including an assignment to write excuse notes from Adam or Eve to God (under the sound logic that forged excuse notes always find teenagers at their most creative) and a poetry lesson in which the class has singalongs (with musical accompaniment) to cookbook recipes. McCourt savored these triumphant moments in the classroom, which were like small victories in a larger war against apathetic students, rigid administrators, and other forms of resistance. Teacher Man never implies that this war can be won, but for those unsung and intrepid blackboard warriors, it's worth fighting.