The lauded memoirist Frank McCourt tells me he could spend seven hours on a soapbox denouncing the evils of the Bushies' No Child Left Behind law, and of the pedagogy of mandatory testing. His opening salvo:
"This is the one profession that politicians barge into all time. They're not going to barge into a bunch of journalists or a bunch of doctors or engineers and tell them what to do, but they barge into the teaching profession, they barge into classrooms and they impose this testing on the kids. It destroys the atmosphere of the school.
"Whether you like it or not, no matter how gifted a teacher you are, you have to start thinking of these kids taking that test in the fourth grade, in the eighth grade, and now they want to start doing it in the high schools. I don't know how America got to be America before all of this testing. I've never met a teacher who likes No Child Left Behind."
Are you taking notes? If not, that's OK because McCourt, 75, will be happy to elaborate in person on Mon., March 6, where he'll read from his third memoir, the just-published Teacher Man, at the Drue Heinz Lecture Series. The writer whose miserable Irish Catholic childhood blossomed into the Pulitzer Prize-winning Angela's Ashes has cast his thoughts upon his 30-year career teaching high school English in the New York City public schools.
Full disclosure: This writer's family boasts a combined 50-plus years of high school English teaching experience. Some of these years belong to my sister, who toils under the same Board of Education that McCourt bemoans in the pages of Teacher Man. Taking advantage of their collective wisdom, I tossed their queries at McCourt, who batted them back over a few glasses of wine last month, in an undisclosed Western metropolis.
My father, a 42-year English department lifer, wanted to know McCourt's favorite Shakespeare play to teach, and why?
"Hamlet, Hamlet, always Hamlet. Especially in difficult schools," McCourt says with absolute certainty. He details how he put the moral questions of the play to students who've little patience for the Bard's linguistic finesse.
"Suppose you went home this afternoon and you find your mother and your uncle sitting there having a drink and you say, 'Where's Dad?' And they say, 'Oh, he went out. Didya know he's out at the corner bar as usual.' But you go upstairs and somehow you have a feeling, and you go into your parents' room and you open the closet and there he's hanging. Dead. How would you feel about that?
"'I'd kill the muthafucka!' And I'd say, 'Why didn't Hamlet do it right away. He knew, didn't he? Why did he delay?' And they didn't understand it at all.
"'Did you ever delay anything? Don't you ever have mixed feelings?'
"And most of them discovered they're not that decisive, even with a dead father. But they all said initially [that] they'd go and kill the uncle and the mother, no doubts whatsoever. We got into the complexity of it, [and] that was the best thing I discovered about teaching: Go to where they are, not to where I am."
My sister Moira boasts 11 years at two Bronx high schools. She asked whether McCourt had any advice on handling teacher burnout.
"Do you know that teacher burnout has been compared scientifically with combat fatigue? Same feelings of stress and exhaustion. If you can take a sabbatical, take one. Otherwise you have to look over your day as a teacher and ask, 'Am I enjoying myself?' You better enjoy yourself. You better find what you love and do it. Start being playful with the kids instead of following the so-called guidelines of the Board of Education."
With my experience in the classroom limited to my thankfully completed school years, I was curious how a young Irish immigrant bucked the established ethnic trades of police work and firefighting and forged into the classroom.
"I don't know how many Irish immigrants who got a high school diploma, got university degrees and became teachers," McCourt says. "I think in a sense I was unique. Unique in my ignorance. Unique in my innocence ... I didn't know my arse from my elbow, I didn't know how to proceed. It took me 15 years in the classroom before I began to feel comfortable."
Fortunately, Frank McCourt is now more than comfortable talking and writing about what he knows best: his life in the classroom and beyond.