Abandon Text!

W. H. Auden once said: "Poems are not finished; they are abandoned." I have been abandoning writing projects for many years, since only the pressure of deadline and high expectations ever got me to finish, or even start, anything of merit. This blog is an attempt to create a more consistent, self-directed writing habit. Hopefully a direction and voice will emerge.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Teacher Man

I just finished up Teacher Man, Frank McCourt's third memoir. Since he had already had a smash hit with a memoir of his miserable Catholic upbringing in Limerick (Angela's Ashes) and his miserable immigrant struggles in America ('Tis), he must have figured it was safe to come out and share the bulk of his life, which was teaching public school in New York for thirty years.

It's funny, in retrospect, how the mind romanticizes the troubles most removed from your own current lot. You see it in the progression of McCourt's books. Though the horrors of his youth -- the abject poverty, his father's drunkenness, constant disease in himself and death in his siblings -- are clearly the worst times of his life, they are still tinged with a magical aura of Dickensian sympathy. Once he gets back to this side of the ocean, his struggles to be something more than just "some Nick straight off the boat" are less horrifying, but still from another time. They have a romance of their own: an all-American, West Side Story kind of romance, tinged with ethnic tensions and New World ambition.

But then we arrive at his middle-age struggles, and here we are: back home in the here and now. His troubles are pretty much our own: struggle to get through school, struggle to get a decent job, struggle to make sense of his own life. He knows he's come a million miles from his miserable beginnings, and that he ought to be grateful, but he's still aching under the burden of his own limitations. His job is an awful grind; his marriage is unhappy; he sees flashes of beauty and meaning bobbing in a gray sea of term papers. Welcome, Mr. McCourt! You have arrived in the Land of Plentiful Anxiety.

McCourt is a truth-teller, and I read this book because I wanted an insightful truth-teller to lay bare the teaching life, since it's somthing I have contemplated doing for a long time. I got my money's worth. He sees the value in good teaching, but he also freely admits he's only half-sure what good teaching is, anyway. He is not shy about describing the burdens: meddlesome asshole administrators, front-row seats at adolescents' home life tragedies, the circus of discipline issues, the absolutely crushing burder of papers to take home. It's not the sort of book to inspire someone to take up teaching, though it might be enough to inspire a teacher to bear up under it. He does celebrate the victories: unexpected breakthroughs from students, the triumph of creativity and joie de vivre in the face of middle-class meaninglessness. But it's not an all-upside, Rafe Esquith memoir of incredible transformations in the classroom. It's probably closer to the truth.

Frank McCourt is a kind of Irish Woody Allen. His constant anxiety and self-doubt, delivered with a somber light-heartedness, is always fun to listen to. I hope he hasn't run out of stories to tell.

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