Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Learning from Frank McCourt, Teacher Man

I'm not sure if exchanging smiles in a Limerick elevator counts as "meeting" Frank McCourt, but even that brief encounter convinced me of his humanity. He was leaving an Irish Studies conference at the university there as I arrived to give a paper. My talk was on an Irish republican propagandist whom he would have heard of in his youth. His youth in a sullen nation after war, recounted in "Angela's Ashes," will be familiar to readers; I leave others to remind those unfamiliar of its evocations of a Limerick utterly changed from that where he and I passed a moment back in 2000.

The common touch with which McCourt delivered his stories bore a long-lasting imprint. As a teacher, I recognized how he honed the craft with which he told his tales on the page. They reminded me of the oral traditions long associated with the "seanachie," the storyteller. I imagined, even before he regaled us with the inevitable pair of sequels, "'Tis" and "Teacher Man," that he polished his narratives over decades in dusty classrooms in New York City. More than any other writer I'd found in my decades of academic study or armchair reverie, McCourt captured the frustration and joy of connecting with students. Not privileged college prep but remedial; not those destined for Harvard, but those facing a life little distinguished from their upbringing in a overwhelmingly diverse city.

Having taught at as many levels as McCourt, for me facing an ESL class full of adult Armenian immigrants in East Hollywood, "at-risk youth" at a shelter for runaways not far away off Sunset Blvd., high schools such as Jefferson, Marshall, and Manual Arts, and Los Angeles college students from backgrounds even more polyglot than those of postwar NYC, I shared his insight into what makes failure and what causes success within a weary school system. We had both entered graduate school after periods teaching in the public schools; in his sequels, he explained his frustration with his chances to rise into the academic stratosphere. While I had earned my Ph.D. in English while continuing to work in the L.A.U.S.D., I gave up my job security there upon completion of my doctorate.

I chose to teach college locally, resigning from a rare tenured position in the Adult Academic division, for I wearied of the cynicism, corruption, and indifference expressed by many who supervised me. I needed the challenge of a higher level of performance that only college-level classes could offer me. Still, like McCourt, teaching remedial English at whatever institution does little to rouse most minds after one's rarified encounters with seminars taught by the world's leading professors among the nation's most ambitious students. The trick, as McCourt shows readers, lies in the knack of making whatever you must teach matter to whoever sits in front of you. And, to make them, for forty minutes or two or four hours, forget that they're sitting there, watching you. By stories, by anecdotes, by examples, any teacher must become a "seanachie." We must enchant our audience.

For, whatever the lesson plan dictates, a successful teacher needs to talk with students. Not at them, as if one of them, or down to them. I asked my Public Speaking class last week what they thought about a teacher or speaker using language associated with a younger crowd, such as they are-- about half my age now. They responded that they liked it. Not that the speaker or teacher would try to ape their clothes, their slang, their mannerisms. But, they admired it when a speaker had taken trouble to listen to them, and had heard how they talked and what they talked about. The speaker, by adapting a lesson or a speech to the audience's own comfort level, would, they told me, respond better to whatever the material.

McCourt, and any successful storyteller or lecturer, can regale an audience by the empathy that imbues this identification. Near the end of "Angela's Ashes," he tells of a sympathetic priest who took the time to hear his teenaged anguish during the often dreaded confession; this charitable breakthrough led McCourt back to remember the humanity that pulsed within even the enforcers of a fearsome clerical discipline that permeated Irish society in ways that, for today's strollers along streets around the Franciscan church in Limerick, would appear utterly changed. When I walked from the bus station to my digs on my last visit to McCourt's hometown, I saw littered on the sidewalk ads for Polish taxi services. I passed an African market. I heard and saw Slavic reminders of an Ireland as unpredictably transformed from the slums once there where McCourt suffered and sang. They were now respectable streets.

Change whirls around us in classrooms today, which mirror its cities in a globalized age. No longer do the Irish constitute the diaspora most common in American ports of entry. Through the stories of one of our nation's largest city's most famous Irish immigrants, many students in classrooms in cities and towns this morning may be reading about a man not that different from them. His accent and complexion may differ. Yet, he too struggled to master a form of English unheard in his childhood; he wandered past traffic looking for comfort; he knew what it was like to be humbled at home and humiliated in school. He faced unemployment and discrimination also. Out of his example, his determination to rise above his origins, he gave a voice to others. In three books he celebrates his own courage and passes on his stories. In them, we will hear him many more years after his death-- speaking to a far greater audience than confined to any bell-timed classroom.

P.S. Inspired by four people I sort of know recently published on the Op-Ed page in the Los Angeles Times, I fired off this in record time to them. Rejection a day later, so here it is for the blogosphere. P.P.S. In fairness to my lovely wife's supportive comment appended, I found out later that already the LAT's published their resident intellectual, Tim Rutten's reminiscence yesterday, Monday, July 20, 2009: "Frank McCourt's Career Rose from Ashes." Serves me right for cutting our subscription back to Thursday-through-Sunday now only.

1 comment:

Layne said...

Whoever rejected this at the Times is a big friggin' buffoon and I am not prejudiced. It is so much better than 90% of anything else they print (the 10% exception being pretty much our friends). I suggested to JLM as he lay in bed peacefully Monday morning that he write a remembrance of McCourt and less than an hour later there was a fully realized beautiful piece in my mailbox which I edited very slightly, amazed at how quickly he could turn out such gorgeous prose. Cancel your subscriptions. Read it here!