He found himself in the classroom

Frank McCourt tells of his teaching career and the kids who saved him from himself.

'Mr. McCourt, you're lucky. You had that miserable childhood so you have something to write about." This from Jonathan, a student at Manhattan's Stuyvesant High School, to his creative writing teacher, Frank McCourt.

As a writer, McCourt's miserable childhood has always been his good fortune.

He won a Pulitzer Prize for "Angela's Ashes," his 1996 memoir of privation, Catholicism, and alcoholism set in Ireland. The follow-up 'Tis,' plumbed some of the same territory through to its after affects.

This time, though, that unhappy childhood mostly gets in the way.

Teacher Man traces the 30-year arc of McCourt's career as an English teacher - from his bumbling days at Staten Island's McKee Vocational high school to his blossoming at Stuyvesant, and two other schools between.

Without McCourt's tappable misery, Jonathan wonders: "What are we gonna write about?"

Well, how about reasons for missing class? Back at McKee, McCourt notices that the excuse notes he gets, usually forged by students, are composed of "writing that ranged from imaginative to lunatic."

"Arnold doesn't have his work today because he was getting off the train yesterday and the door closed on his school bag and the train took it away," explains one. "He yelled to the conductor who said very vulgar things as the train drove away. Something should be done."

Reads another: "Her big brother got mad at her and threw her essay out the widow and it flew away all over Staten Island which is not a good thing because people will read it and get the wrong impression unless they read the ending which explains everything."

McCourt decides to make the notes a writing exercise, and assigns his students letters excusing the absences of their imaginary children.

"They were eager, desperate to make up excuses for their 15-year-old sons and daughters. It was an act of loyalty and love and, you never know, some day they might need these notes," writes McCourt.

As homework he has them compose "An excuse note from Adam to God." This accidental teaching is ingenuous, and in McCourt's hands the retelling is droll and poignant.

At Stuyvesant he teaches recipes, which one student recognizes as a form of verse. "Some of them," she says, "read like poetry. I mean they're even better than poetry because you can taste them. And, wow, the Italian recipes are pure music." Eventually, his students are accompanied in their recipe recitations by classmates on flute, guitar, and oboe.

In these moments, McCourt succeeds at bringing the reader with him into the classroom.

But through most of the book, even while in class, I felt stuck in McCourt's head. Sometimes I felt dislodged and afloat in there. Without a strong sense of time or place, McCourt cobbles together a narrative through vignettes, almost stream-of-consciousness in style.

There's his turn at Trinity College, a digression that serves mainly to illustrate another failure, and takes McCourt back to Ireland, where he did not earn a PhD. As a reader, I wanted to escape McCourt's self-deprecating thoughts for the classroom and his students.

The point McCourt seems to be making - that in his years in New York schools he learned as much, perhaps more, from his students than they did from him - is humbling, even touching.

But somehow, in McCourt's toxic hands, this moving revelation is tinged with bathos. In his own words, he is, after all, "a two-faced blathering mick...."

His adolescent students urge self-esteem on a man who says he "didn't have the self-confidence of an eggshell." And even they recognize that "there's a limit to hard-luck stories."

After so many pages of McCourt's sometimes inexplicable self-loathing, I found myself, begrudgingly, disliking him nearly as much as he seems to have disliked himself.

It's hard not to believe that McCourt is a better teacher than he admits. On the GRE he "astonished [himself] and those around [him] with a score in the ninety-ninth percentile in English." (Of course he also thinks he earned "the lowest score in the world" in math.)

And he's the most popular teacher at the best public school in New York. "They flocked to my classes," he writes. "The room was packed. They sat on windowsills."

If only he could have more consistently shown us why.

Teresa Méndez is on the Monitor's staff.

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