’Tis a Sequel

Frank McCourt, in a Stuyvesant High School yearbook.Photo: Courtesy of the Stuyvesant High School Alumni Association Archives

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 New York.

Teacher Man tells us a lot about how shy and maladjusted you were as a young man. You okay about revealing all this?
What the hell. I’m not getting any younger. I’m marching steadily towards oblivion, so what the hell indeed.

How old are you?
Seventy-five. I wish I were younger, because I had the material [to write], but I didn’t have the confidence in the material.

Teaching gave you that confidence.
I never really fit in anywhere. I couldn’t fit in the Irish community in New York. I was never one of the boys because they would talk about baseball or basketball, and I knew nothing about it. Even when I went to the Lion’s Head in the Village, where all you journalists would hang out, I was always peripheral. I was never really part of anything except the classroom. That’s where I belonged.

So it honed your narrative voice.
There’s nothing in the world like getting up in front of a high-school classroom in New York City. They won’t give you a break if you don’t hold them. There’s no escape.

It must be vindicating to show them that you knew what you were talking about.
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 talking out of my ass. Nobody ever said it, 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 and he’s telling you how to run, you want to say, Hey, where do you get off?

You showed ’em.
I got the Pulitzer Prize, baby! [Laughs]

You have a sly trick of being boastful while appearing humble. Where’d you pick that up?
That’s something the Church tells you: Pride is the first deadly sin. Self-deprecating is a roundabout way of praising yourself. Pretty nimble.

Did you have a favorite pickup line?
I was very glib in my seduction days, especially if I’d had a few drinks.

So tell.
“Would you like to have adventures?”

You dog. And it worked?
Some of them would say yes. [Pause] They were amused, but I don’t think they were enchanted. [Pause] Are you single?

I’m married. She’s immune.
That’s right. Marriage is a process of gaining immunity. [Laughs]

Did you just make that up? You see? That’s your charm.
You gave me the opening. Shall we take it on the road?

So is the charm more of a strain these days?
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, I’ve said, You better enjoy yourself.

Did you enjoy the time it took to write this book?
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.

Does anything else make you unhappy?
The phoniness of everything. I can barely watch the television anymore. What shows disgust you most? The news. O’Reilly. I couldn’t look at his face. Or the other clown—Hannity. Chris Matthews.

Irishmen all.
I know. They have a big mouth. [Laughs]

If you were to meet a young man like yourself, would you have any words of advice?
I’d say, “Go find somebody you can talk to.” A wise man or woman. We’re all looking for the father figure—Telemachus and Odysseus all over again. I had nobody.

Would you have become a writer if you had?
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.

Teacher Man: A Memoir
By Frank McCourt.
272 pages. $26.

’Tis a Sequel