Beyond a Difficult Childhood

23 Apr

I’m reading the latest book by Frank McCourt, author of Angela’s Ashes. This book is called Teacher Man.

if you’ve read his other books you will find a lot of similar material: it’s about his experiences as a high school teacher in New York. It has the delightful touch of someone who taught with young people for thirty years: I mean the ‘with’. They learned together. He was never the know-it-all kind of teacher, and disciplinarian. This was part of his struggle, as from the beginning the ‘system’ seemed to require that of him. But he wasn’t like that, and as a result McCourt is always able to laugh at himself, in a healthy and a permission-giving way.

If you have read Angela’s Ashes, or perhaps seen the movie, you will know the grinding poverty that made up his life in Ireland.
This new book begins with an acknowledgement of that, but also indicates that despite a difficult childhood, he still has choices. To put it in my own words: we have a choice and a responsibility, just what we do with our history of struggle and suffering. We could, as McCourt says, draw upon ideas such as Freud’s, to ‘explain’ all sorts of things.
This is how he begins:

‘If I knew anything about Sigmund Freud and psychoanalysis I’d be able to trace all my troubles to my miserable childhood in Ireland. That miserabel childhood deprived me of self-esteem, triggered spasms of self pity, paralyzed my emotions, made me cranky, envious and sis-respectful of authority, retarded my development, crippled my doings with the opposite sex, kept me from rising in the world and made me unfit, almost, for human society. How I became a teacher at all and remained one is a miracle and I have to give myself full marks for surviving all those years in the classrooms of New York.’ (page 1)

He goes on to say that he could lay blame, and there are many who deserve blame for the things that oppressed the Irish poor, not least the small minded idiocy of church teaching and practice of the time.
But in the end, McCourt is saying, you have a choice what you do with your struggle. You can use it for blame, for excused, for ‘explanations’: or you can just get on with your life.

I found instant recognition in the paragraph I have just quoted. These are the issues of my own life too. The poverty we experienced as children was not so tough: we always had something to eat, and our father was not absent, or a drunk. But the details are not the point. Many, many people have personal histories of struggle, maybe with poverty, illness, violence, abuse, thwarted dreams and so much more. Many people have personal histories which provide an opportunity for blame, for ‘explanations’: and it is a miracle that we survive, to grow into adults who can contribute. So often it is these very people who contribute a great deal. They have learned persistence, struggle, but also empathy.

I am so glad that McCourt is willing to award himself a medal. I think he deserves it.
I am even more glad that he is such an inspiration, to any who are teachers. He lifts up and honours the role of the class room teacher, not for their ‘outcomes’, the measurable goals of grades and graduations, but for the relationships, the investment in young lives searching for meaning and for someone who actually listens, understands, cares. I honour and value all who share this calling.

And I am glad that McCout shows that you can overcome the difficult childhood, and make something of it. He says it is a miracle. I agree: that means, there is something here of gift, not just effort and achievement. In spite of our difficult past, we have to acknowledge that wherever we are today is because life is kind to us. The world is not a bitter and negative place, even if it is often tricky and sometimes very cruel.
Still, life asserts itself. Love endures all. There is that within which is creative, redemptive, which gives new beginnings. There is a God!

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