Picking up where his second book of memoirs ended, Frank McCourt, fresh off a stint in the Army and newly graduated from New York University, decides to begin teaching. He never imagined though that it would turn into a career. Teaching was just something to do, and in his mind he was lucky to be getting a regular salary and it beat working on the piers. Now only if he could overcome the fear of being found out by his students and administrators. Surely they would discover that McCourt hadn't a clue as to what he was doing in a classroom.
He was off to a rough start when he began his first job teaching at McKee Vocational and Technical High School on Staten Island in 1958. On his first day, a scuffle broke out among some students and, oddly enough, a sandwich was thrown. Thinking he would teach the kids a lesson, although not entirely sure what that lesson was, McCourt promptly picked up the sandwich and ate it. It wasn't long before parents started complaining.
It took many years before McCourt finally felt he was getting the hang of the teaching game. He discovered that he could control the students with his stories --- stories of life back in Ireland, as a young man in the Army, and of his experiences as an immigrant. Though a bit unconventional, his methods resonated with his pupils and got them enthused about the material. After realizing his class had a knack for writing phony excuse notes, he assigned each student to write such a note --- from Adam to God, from Eve to God, even from the Devil himself. He could barely contain his excitement when he witnessed his students race to rip open their notebooks to begin.
McCourt's life is mirrored through his students. We see the doomed love affair between Sal Battaglia and his girlfriend Louise. He was Italian, she was Irish; though they were both Catholic, their parents disapproved of their relationship. As soon as they finished high school, they planned to marry and start a life together. One night in the park Sal is jumped by members of an Irish gang who don't take kindly to his dating one of their own and they beat him within an inch of his life. After he returns to school, he won't even look at Louise. He wants to distance himself from all things Irish, even if that means the love of his life or his well-intentioned English teacher. McCourt desperately wants to reach out to the poor boy but is at a loss for things to say. Once again, he questions whether or not he has the ability to relate to his own students.
We also meet rambunctious Kevin Dunne, a sweet but unfocused kid who no one at McKee wants in their class. They give him to McCourt since he is the new teacher; unbeknownst to McCourt, he inspires the boy to express himself through art. When he enters the army and is lost in combat, his mother gives McCourt a piece of his art --- a large pickle jar filled with his paints mixed in with some of his own hair. Upon gazing at this, McCourt reflects, "I kept the jar on my desk, where it glowed incandescent, and when I looked at clumps of Kevin's hair I felt very sorry over the way I let him drift out of school and off to Vietnam."
All the while, we see McCourt's rise through the school system, his pursuit of a Master's Degree, his daughter's birth, the collapse of his marriage, and his attempts at putting his life back on track. Though not as narrative as ANGELA'S ASHES or 'TIS, TEACHER MAN is a charming and sweet rumination on a man who drifted into the profession he was meant for and later blossomed into the writer we are all thankful for.
Reviewed by Bronwyn Miller on January 23, 2011