Now, look: we’d better mention, right off the bat, that Frank McCourt is one of two authors who Give Me Hope (the other, before you ask, is Patrick O’Brian of the Jack Aubrey Napoleonic/Royal Navy stories fame), although perhaps not for the reason you would think. See, here’s the deal: McCourt was a career public school teacher --- for 27 years; he retired at 58 (earlier than me) and published his first work, Angela’s Ashes, eight years later. As a writer, he didn’t achieve publication/fame until he was 66. (I’m tempted to ask snarkily, “Eight years? Eight years to write his first book? What the hell was he doing in all that retired time?” No, no… never mind the fact that my first novel took nine years… I wasn’t retired. Nope. Was busy teaching. And husbanding. And fathering a small regiment of children. All of those things full-time. So I think nine years isn’t too shabby an accomplishment, all things considered.) And while O’Brian had a lengthy publishing history that spanned decades, high profile fame really only came to him in the last decade of his life, before he died at age 85. So, yeah, there it is: my completely mercenary adulation of these two successful authors lies in the fact that neither one achieved fame and fortune until they were much older than me. So hence, the Giving Me Hope thing. QED. Still got time, God willing, I mutter to myself, hunched over my trusty Dell Inspiron.
(I occasionally see chirpy little tweets on Twitter from evidently young-as-spring-chicken writers who provide lengthy lists of famous authors who weren’t published until --- gasp --- after age 35! And I’d like to reach out and say to these writers, “Sweethearts, 35 seems quaintly like half a lifetime ago!” Which it almost --- note the emphasis on almost, please --- is.)
Anyway. Back to McCourt and his annoying book. What, you ask, annoyed me --- other than his baffling decision to completely eliminate quotation marks whenever providing dialogue? (Why would a writer do that if not to attempt to appear Precious or Avant-garde or Daringly Independent of Established Conventions? Pfft. Please.)
Primarily, the annoyance stems from the fact that his work is permeated with: (a) his feelings of inadequacy over his ability to teach, and (b) his feelings of doubt as to whether or not the teaching profession was of any particular value.
Now, I’m perfectly well aware many who have read Teacher Man might not find these to be annoyances at all --- might even find them intriguing, or refreshingly honest, or poignant, or something. That’s fine: you’re entitled to your opinions. And so am I.
I guess it’s because I never had the slightest doubt in my teaching ability. Right from the first time I stood up before a class as a student teacher, I just knew: I fitted. I Could Do This. And Do It Well. (I’m not vain enough to assert that every single one of my students, or their parents, always felt the same way about my teaching, of course. As John Lydgate said --- centuries before Abraham Lincoln was credited with saying it, by the way --- you can’t please all the people all the time. In fact, I’ll go further: there are days when it seems you damned well can’t please anyone. Oy.)
And I never had the slightest doubt in the value/importance of what I was doing. Even though teaching is a stupidly impossible job, and I say that with much affection after 34 and a half years.
Now, to be fair to McCourt, he was teaching --- for part of his career, anyway --- in tough, inner-city New York public schools. Way tougher than any building I ever taught in. So mere survival (physical/emotional/ spiritual) may well have figured far more prominently as one of his long-term goals than it ever had to for me.
All is not negative, however. One of the good things about my irritation with McCourt’s Teacher Man is that it gave rise to that little voice perched on my shoulder --- the one writers know all too well --- whispering to me, “You know, you could write your own memoir of the profession. You’ve certainly got enough to say about it.”
And I thought, why, you know, I could, couldn’t I? Put that one on the back burner and let it percolate for a while. Or maybe even the front burner, as something quite different from what I’m currently working on (the epic fantasy sequel to my first novel… although that one, I may have been working on for a year or six already, so maybe it’s time to get it finished).
But, if I do write a teaching memoir, I think I’ll keep the quotation marks in dialogue.