published in New York Magazine
Frank McCourt is a charmer, so it’s a shock to learn what a nasty case of social discomfort he suffered as a young man. But his third memoir, Teacher Man, reveals the painful extent of his alienation—and the solace he found teaching for 30 years (12,000 students!) in the public schools of New York. Along the way, he polished his narrative skills, as well as what could be one of the best pickup lines of all time, which he discloses here to Daniel Asa Rose of New York.
TEACHER MAN tells us a lot about how shy and maladjusted you were as a young man. You OK about revealing all this?
FM: What the hell. I’m not getting any younger. I’m marching steadily towards oblivion, so what the hell indeed.
How old are you?
FM: 75. I wish I were younger, because there’s a million things I’d like to do. I’d like to take what I know now and go back to 29. Because I knew bugger all when I was 29. I had the material [to write], but I didn’t have the confidence in the material. I didn’t think it was worth anything. Who would want to read about misery and Ireland and Catholicism and that sordid stuff?
Teaching gave you the confidence you lacked.
FM: I never really fit in anywhere. I couldn’t fit in the Irish community in NY. I was never one of the boys because they would talk about baseball or basketball and I knew nothing about it. And even when I went to the Lion’s Head bar in the Village where all you journalists would hang out, I was always on the peripheral. I wanted to be part of it all but at the same time either I was obdurate or lacked any kind of self confidence. I was never really part of anything except the classroom. That’s where I belonged.
My personal life wasn’t the best. I had two bad marriages. There were days of despair. My daughter ran off and became a Dead Head. All this stuff was going on [but] you leave it at door the before you go into the classroom. They’re curious about your life but they don’t want sad stories. I realized the entertainment value of entertainment value. I learned in the classroom that you better tell the truth. If you have 170-175 kids every day, they’ll detect when you’re putting on the act. They know which teachers are bullshitting, which ones are struggling to tell the truth.
So it honed your narrative voice.
FM: There’s nothing in the world like getting up there in front of a high school classroom in New York City and facing it. I had a captive audience. But they won’t give you a break if you don’t hold them interested. And there is no escape. If you’re a doctor or lawyer you can excuse yourself for awhile and go off somewhere, but [with] teaching there’s no escape.
Made you the writer you are.
FM: It did – between telling stories at school, and telling stories to my daughter at bedtime, it did.
Must be a vindication to show your old creative writing students that you knew what you were talking about.
FM: The best part, the most exquisite part, the most delicious part is meeting those kids years later and to have proved to them that I wasn’t just talking out of my ass. Nobody ever said it to me, but I wondered if they were thinking, what has he ever done? If you have a physical education teacher and he has a big beer belly, he’s telling you how to run, you want to say hey, where do you get off…
You showed ’em.
FM: I got the Pulitzer Prize, baby! [laughs]
When you were young, a lot of people refused to shake your hand. I presume these days they want to kiss your ring.
FM: Except for people back in Limerick who were pissed off at me. And certain Irish Americans who want to hold the steady stereotype image of Ireland and didn’t like my oblique attacks at the church. There has been a lot of sniping for one reason or another.
As a young man, you were overly susceptible to heart break. Do New York women still break your heart?
FM: When I was growing up in Limerick, although Limerick had a reputation of having the prettiest women in Ireland, I used to go to the movies and sit there with my mouth open at the beauty of American girls. This city is extraordinary, for the beauty and variety of its women. It still goes on. That’s why I’d like to be 29 again.
Now we’re getting to it. But is it difficult to stay raffish at your age?
MF: Raffish? I don’t know if I am.
What do you call your charm? Pixie-ish?
FM: I don’t know, Irishness?
You have a sly trick of being boastful while appearing humble. Where’d you pick that up?
FM: That’s something the church tells you. Pride is the first deadly sin: That’s the one Lucifer committed and got kicked out of heaven. Self deprecating is a roundabout way of praising yourself. If you don’t give yourself credit, who will?
Pretty nimble. Did you have a favorite pick-up line?
FM: I was very glib when I would meet women in my seduction days, especially if I had a few drinks.
FM: ‘Would you like to have adventures?’
You dog. And it worked?
FM: Some of them would say yes to my adventure proposal. (beat) They were amused but I don’t think they were enchanted. (beat) Are you single?
I’m remarried. She’s immune to me.
FM: That’s right. Marriage is a process of gaining immunity. (laughs)
Did you just make that up? You see? That’s your charm. You’re improvising.
FM: You gave me the opening. Shall we take it on the road?
So is the charm more of a strain these days?
FM: I’m not trying any more. What’s that September Song? ‘’The days are growing few,’ so in many ways I don’t give a shit. At this stage of my life, I’ve said to myself, you better enjoy yourself.
Did you enjoy the time it took to write this book?
FM: It was four years of pure misery. I enjoyed nothing. Food turned to ashes in my mouth. When I went out, I thought I should be home writing that damn book. It was a long hard slog. I despaired.
Besides writing, what else makes you unhappy?
FM: The phoniness of everything. You remember Holden Caulfield. He was always talking about phony phony. I can barely watch the television[, the news] anymore. All the posturing.
Are you a pain to watch television with?
FM: I am. I just get up and walk away.
What shows disgust you most?
FM: The news. O’Reilly. I couldn’t look at his face. Or the other clown. Hannrity. Chris Matthews.
FM: I know. They have a big mouth. (laughs)
Are you happier than you were as a young man?
FM: I have a greater sense of freedom, but then why shouldn’t I? I have money that I’d never dreamed I’d have. I have all but the perfect wife. Cheerful. From California. There’s not a cloud in her sky. She doesn’t understand the essential tragedy that is me. (laughs) I would never be able to marry anybody like myself. It would be pure gloom.
Are you still shy? Do you need to be polite all the time?
FM: I’m still not too good at encounters.
If you didn’t need to be polite, would there be anything particular you’d want to say to the readers of NY magazine?
FM: It would have to do with education. Here’s my soapbox: ‘Why are you allowing the politicians to get away with murder? Why do the teachers have to teach another ten minutes every day when all they do is go home and correct papers all night? They got ten minutes on this contract and twenty minutes out of the last contract. So that’s another half an hour every day, and they get no credit for what they’re doing. And then the begrudgery in the negotiation, this confrontational attitude of politicians towards teachers as if the teachers weren’t the single most precious resource we have in the city.’
If you were to meet a young man like yourself, would you have any words of advice?
FM: I would say, go find somebody you could talk to. A wise man or woman. We’re all looking for the father figure – Telemachus and Odysseus all over again. I had nobody to talk to.
Would you have become a writer if you had?
FM: Probably not. It would have made me more mellow. As it was, I was ill-adjusted. And that makes for a story. So thank God for making me miserable.