For 30 years, Frank McCourt taught English and later Creative Writing in various high schools in New York City. He shares anecdotes about his experiences in some very different schools, and stories about his own life during those years, and how all that finally led to him writing his first book, Angela’s Ashes, which won a Pulitzer Prize, at the age of 66.
At first glance, this should be a good book. It’s funny and heartwarming, but occasionally tragic and thought-provoking. There are a bunch of memorable characters and incidents, and the humour is warm and gently self-deprecating. Hidden underneath the witty commentary on the trials of educating teenagers, there are some fine observations regarding the failures of an educational system that has no time and ressources to adequately respond to the strengths and weaknesses of individual students or any detrimental situations they may experience at home, and whose teachers are often left to fend for themselves. McCourt is also disarmingly honest when talking about his own failures as a teacher, which were not always caused by a broken system, but often by his own lack of direction and commitment. It took him many years to truly find his way in the classroom, and even then any answer to the question of what constituted a success remained unsatisfying.
Despite all these good things that can be said about the book, it did not engage me as much as it should have. It was just not that interesting overall because many parts lacked substance apart from a funny or bittersweet punchline, and thus made the book drag. The story can be boiled down to McCourt explaining not only how he found his voice as a teacher, but through teaching, as a writer, which can come across as rather self-indulgent. In one of his classes he talks with his students about the fact that if you want to write, you need something to write about. McCourt definitely had that when he wrote about his childhood in Ireland in his first book, but I can’t help but wonder whether this later part of his life actually required to be written about, and especially in such elaborateness.