Thursday, May 14, 2009

Cannonball Read #30: Teacher Man by Frank McCourt

Frank McCourt wrote what is pretty well accepted as the most soul-crushing and most uplifting book in the history of life when he published Angela's Ashes. For those who haven't read it, it's an account of his completely gut-wrenching childhood in Ireland and let me tell is crushing. McCourt's childhood is the kind of stuff very few make it out of.

This is not Angela's Ashes. It's a solid book, but it doesn't reach the heights of his previous work. He has gotten free of his hellish upbringing and is beginning to strike out towards a new life in America. Obviously, his childhood still resonates through his adult life, but there is a different tone to this story of McCourt's life teaching in New York.

Frank McCourt is clearly the teacher that you remember on your wedding day and your graduation and the days your children are born. He doesn't just teach a subject, he teaches you about how life is and should be. He clearly understands that his teaching methods are unconventional (and largely improvised) but it's equally clear that he is able to connect with a huge variety of kids, which is extremely difficult. He tells stories of his children in Teacher Man and these stories let you in on how many different people he was able to reach, even if he chooses those stories because they resonated with HIM.

When I was reading this book, I was strongly reminded of a professor who I have taken several courses with at Assumption. I love all of my professors in the political science department, but there are two who stand out as polarizing characters. One is a taskmaster - he expects you to show up with your shit in order, papers produced with perfect grammar, and produces blue-book exams that strike fear in to the hearts of the bravest political science wonks. The other is a somewhat looser individual - I have yet to write a paper longer than 2 pages for him (font size your choice) and his finals are always optional. The latter professor is somewhat confounding - I once informed him that I thought he was great when I didn't want to slap him in the head - but once you figure out the differences between the two it becomes clear. Professor Number One is there to relay the wisdom of the ages, to forcefeed you information that he believes vitally important to your life. Professor Number Two wants to teach you how life works so you can figure out the important stuff yourself, and most of all to always question what's presented to you. They're both wonderful teachers, from different points. My collegiate life wouldn't be the same without them.

This is a brilliant book for reminding you of the best teachers you've ever had. It's a spectacular book for future teachers - it reminds you that it's not all nobility and praise from thankful parents. McCourt reminds you that it's a tough slog to teaching, and that even once you get there, it's tough work for a very small percentage of reward.

272 pages

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