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Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Good night and thank you, Teacher Man

A decade before the crew of Apollo 11 landed on the moon, he stepped inside a New York classroom for the first time and began an odyssey whose length, breadth, and distance would span thirty years and spawn legions of learned individuals, opening their eyes to the wonders of literature as well as his life in Limerick. He was the quintessential Teacher Man, Frank McCourt, who passed away on July19th, at the age of 78.

I first came to know about Frank McCourt as he unraveled his life in the book Angela’s Ashes and its film version shown in the late 90s. I remember seeing the dank, dreary days of his life in Ireland that made me rethink my then half-wishes to be Irish, thanks to the popularity of Boyzone. But I digress.

His life, as portrayed in the movie, is a study in doggedness. “…(N)ot as glamorous as ambition or charm,” he says about doggedness, “but still the one thing that got me through the days and nights.”

That same doggedness helped him revitalize the minds and hearts of hundreds of students across four high schools, many of whom have been written off as “unteachable,” if not unreachable, as he chronicled in his 2005 book Teacher Man. (I found a hardbound, pristine copy in a second-hand book store in the US at a fraction of its original cost- which made me feel pleased at such a find but at the same time troubled me, given the quality of his thoughts and writing.)

It is an easy read but I didn’t finish it until several months after; teaching got in the way (haha) To anyone who’s read it and is in the same profession as he was, one can’t help but feel that *affinity* to the stories he’s told. About the jocks, damsels, “mouths,” eager-beavers, shy violets, geeks in EVERY class. On the perennial struggle between being the students’ friend to gain their respect or being the personification of monstrosity to gain their respect. That whatever emanates from the teacher’s mouth bears the stamp of being gospel-truth… which can bite the teacher’s behind when s/he contradicts it in the future.

I have not attended his creative writing or English class, but reading Teacher Man has allowed me to sit in his accidental class for teachers in particular and humans in general. He embraced and celebrated his past through stories that highlighted the good and forgave the bad. He was creative, honest, patient- and nurtured these among his ward. He never forgot that inasmuch as he was seated behind the teacher’s table or standing in front of the blackboard, he remained a student, on the constant quest for self-improvement and liberation from self-doubt.

The bell has rung. The class is dismissed. At the end of it all, Mr. McCourt may not have journeyed to the moon but he gave thousands a boost so they can reach their own stars.

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