It’s August. Already.
Just a few short months (or was it weeks? days? minutes?) ago, teachers slipped free from their classrooms for an all-too-brief break.
Now they head back to the classroom, hopefully refreshed and recharged for a new school year.
For more than 30 years, Frank McCourt negotiated that re-entry into the school year. The Pulitzer Prize winning author spent decades teaching in New York City classrooms before writing his celebrated breakout memoir Angela’s Ashes, followed by ‘Tis and Teacher Man.
McCourt was an unlikely educator. He was born into poverty in New York, the son of Irish immigrants. His family returned to Ireland when he was just a child, where the family remained miserably poor. McCourt attended school only until the age of 13, and never completed his high school education. Ironic, considering he ended up spending the majority of his adult life in a high school classroom.
He returned to New York as a young adult, and held a series of jobs until talking his way into New York University at the age of 22. A few years later, the awkward, insecure young teacher found himself thrust utterly unprepared into a classroom, left largely on his own to figure out just how to teach.
McCourt became an iconoclast at Stuyvesant High School, a highly-competitive prep school for kids from working class families. His writing class became legendary at the school, a haven for disaffected youth struggling to navigate the demanding rigor of a school that serves as a pipeline to the Ivy League.
McCourt regaled the class with his stories, and coaxed out of them their own stories. Upon his death in 2009, hundreds shared remembrances of the beloved teacher.
He was the type of teacher that makes students anticipate August.
What made McCourt a success as a teacher? A few of my observations of his life and work:
Transparency was key to his success. Early on in his career, he was advised by a senior colleague to keep his private life strictly private, and to reveal as little to his students as possible. McCourt rejected that advice as thoroughly as possible.
McCourt regaled his students with stories from his “miserable Irish childhood,” the very stories which became the basis of Angela’s Ashes.
But it was far from a self-indulgent exercise. McCourt carefully teased stories out of his own students, assigning them to write about seemingly simple topics like what they did the night before, pushing them to recall and explore mundane details that brought their stories to life.
How fortunate for those students that McCourt forged his own path, and was true to his authentic self. He empowered his students to do the same.
He wasn’t just teaching, he was learning.
“Instead of teaching, I told stories,” he wrote in Teacher Man. “Anything to keep them quiet and in their seats. They thought I was teaching. I thought I was teaching. I was learning.”
Without doubt, years of telling and retelling anecdotes from his life offered him the opportunity to carefully hone his stories into the masterful, award-winning memoirs they became.
The best teachers are the best learners, and the best learners are the best students.
It’s never too late. McCourt was well into his twenties before he even started college. He was well into his 60s before his first book was published. “I was a geriatric novelty with an Irish accent,” McCourt said.
McCourt didn’t write Angela’s Ashes when he was in his 30s, 40s or even 50s because he was, well, busy.
“When you teach five high school classes a day, five days a week, you’re not inclined to go home to clear your head and fashion deathless prose. After a day of five classes your head is filled with the clamor of the classroom,” he wrote in Teacher Man.
It can be tempting to talk yourself out of pursuing a big dream because “I’m too old” or “It’s too late.” The truth is, you simply start when and where you start.
I didn’t have the pleasure of interviewing Frank McCourt, but if I had, I imagine I would have been as charmed by his brogue as were his students and later, audiences and book reading. Fortunately, I can hear his voice in the stories he left behind.
What teacher’s story would you most like to hear? What teacher made you look forward to returning to school in the fall?