Review of Human Development Themes Within Frank McCourt's "'Tis" Part 2
“In the summer of 1957 I complete my degree courses at NYU and in the autumn pass the Board of Education exams for teaching high school English.” (p.216) His first job is at the McKee Vocational and Technical High School teaching Economic Citizenship and sophomore English.
Despite associates telling him, “You gotta come down on the little bastards like a ton of bricks.” (p.233) and remarkable unruliness from his students, he soon comes to develop his own style in his quest for vocational expertise as he begins, “learning the art of high school students’ delaying tactics, how they seize on any occasion to avoid the work of the day. They flatter and cajole and hold their hands over their hearts declaring they are desperate to hear about Ireland.” (p.241)
“Alberta talks about Marriage. She’d like to settle down, have a husband, go to antique shops on weekends, make dinner, get a decent apartment someday, be a mother…I’m not ready yet…I want to roam the city, drink coffee in cafes and beer in bars… (But) Alberta tells me things have to be taken care of, that I have to grow up and settle down or I’ll be like my father, a mad wanderer drinking myself to death.” (ps.262, 263)
McCourt’s ambivalence concerning marriage is fueled by a fear of settling into a kind of suburban routine he had never comfortably known and by the thought of losing the freedom he came to New York to find. This type of reevaluation of the life structure one is entering into is what Levinson termed the age-30 transition. After losing Alberta for a short time as a result of this ambivalence he becomes committed to the idea of marrying her if only she’ll have him again.
He wonders after teaching for his first couple of months and contending with the low pay and raucous students, “Why can’t I have a bright carefree life like my brothers Malachy and Michael, uptown in a bar serving drinks to beautiful women and bantering with Ivy League graduates? I’d make more money than this forty-five hundred dollars a year for regular substitute teachers…I’d sleep late, have lunch at a romantic restaurant, walk the streets of Manhattan, there would be no forms to fill out, no papers to correct, the books I’d read would be for my own pleasure and I’d never have to worry about sullen high school teenagers.” (p.256)
He reflects on the past influences of mentors like his friend Horace from the Port warehouses and on current influences like Alberta and comes to the conclusion that, “I won’t give up teaching, not because of Horace…or Alberta, but because of what I might say to myself at the end of a night of serving drinks and amusing the customers. I’d accuse myself of taking the easy way and all because I was defeated by boys and girls resisting (their textbooks).” (p.256) His ultimate belief in himself to succeed and sense of self-efficacy along with the quality of an unlikely mentoring relationship, both of which are essential in establishing a career in the face of setbacks and frustration, kept him dedicated to his teaching career.
During the separation from Alberta he sinks into a despair during which he momentarily questions everything concerning the course he has taken with his life. Until, “I turn south on Fifth Avenue and there’s the dream I had all those years ago in Ireland…and I have my health, don’t I? A little weak in the eye and teeth department, a college degree and a teaching job and isn’t this the country where all thing are possible, where you can do anything as long as you stop complaining.” (p.269)
This realization that he has actualized so much of the dream that was once so far away as a destitute child in Limerick who came to the United States without a high school degree, is enough to reinvigorate him and save him from despair.
Alberta Small becomes willing to reconcile on the condition that they consider marriage. The duality of McCourt’s thinking is troublesome for him. Though he was ready to make a commitment in the despair engendered by having lost her for a short time when they reconcile and, “she mentions marriage there’s a sharp pain in my chest from the fear that I’ll never have that free life I see everywhere in New York.” (p.274)
Despite this, the distress experienced during his period of singlehood motivates him to establish cohabitation with her. They begin living together in an apartment in Brooklyn. When they are married in 1961 there is a small dispute over her desire to hold the service in an Episcopal Church. McCourt’s Irish resentment towards the English surfaces as he states, “Episcopalians irritate me. Why couldn’t they stop the damn nonsense? They’re up there with their statues and crosses and holy water and even confession, so why can’t they call Rome and tell them they want to return?” (p.291)
After settling on being married in a municipal building he further complicates the situation when he becomes overly inebriated on their wedding day and gets into a fight outside of the reception while trying to defend a friend who had backed into his neighbor’s car. “Upstairs Alberta started to cry, telling me I was ruing the whole night…Alberta got so angry she ripped the wedding ring from her finger and threw it out the window.” (p.296)
A friend from NYU expresses his concern over McCourt’s preoccupying pragmatic concerns which require him to teach and make a living versus his desire for him to realize his creative dream of writing. “You’ll never write while you’re teaching. Teaching is a bitch. Remember Voltaire? Cultivate your garden…And Carlyle? Make money and forget the universe.” (p.278)
But, consistent with the findings on creative achievement he accomplishes his best creative writing much later in life with the publishing of his first memoir, “Angela’s Ashes,” in 1996. With age most artists are better able to frame and design extensive works such as books and assimilate past experience with a unique cognitive inflection, which he achieves in this work.
Becoming a Father
Frank McCourt became a father at the age of forty-one. His daughter Margaret Ann was born in Unity Hospital in Brooklyn. His wife Alberta, having her own active teaching career had to balance the demands of motherhood and career. The McCourt’s status as a dual-earner marriage presumably placed some degree of stress on Alberta as it does many new mothers in her situation. She had to forgo breastfeeding and much of the extensive early care of her daughter that might have been preferable to her.
The transition to parenthood is not one that strengthens their marriage. Rather it only highlights the fundamental variations in Frank’s and Alberta’s respective visions of life. “It was too much for me. I didn’t know how to be a husband, a father, a house owner with two tenants, a certified member of the middle class.” (p.351)
He laments that, “Slum reared-Irish Catholics have nothing in common with nice girls from New England…Slum reared Catholics might have recalled what their fathers said, after a full belly all is poetry.” (p.352) A week before his daughter’s eighth birthday he leaves.
McCourt took new, better teaching jobs as he continued to hone his craft and develop better ways to make literature relatable to his young classes. He teaches at New York Technical College, and pursues a Master’s Degree.
In 1972 he attains a full-time position in the English Department at Stuyvesant High School, purportedly one of the best private schools in the country. The students here compared to the kids at McKee Vocational and Technical High School, “have got it made. In eight months they’ll be at colleges and Universities all over the Country, Yale Stanford, MIT, Williams, Harvard, lord and ladies of the earth.” (p.335) He teaches American Literature, English Literature, and later Creative writing to five classes a day five days a week and takes on a teaching persona that makes the kids and himself miserable. This may have formed out of vitriol for the privileged positions of these children, “the privileged, the chosen, the pampered…still whining, still complaining, when there are millions around the world who’d offer fingers and toes to be in your seats, nicely clothed, well fed, with the world by the balls.” (p.333)
“Every day I teach with my guts in a knot, lurking behind my desk at the front of the room playing the teacher game with the chalk, the eraser, the red pen, the teacher guides, the power of the quiz, the test, the exam…I’ll damage your average so badly kid you’ll be lucky to get into community college in Mississippi.” (p.336)
Until on one day the frost and the bitterness are broken when they find out he never had to go to High School. “Wow, Mr. Court, you never went to high school and you’re teaching at Stuyvesant? Cool, man…And into the trash basket I drop my teaching guides, my quizzes, tests, examinations, my teacher-knows-all mask. I’m naked and staring over and I hardly know where to begin.” (p.337)
With this short period of gloom and despair over, he is free to continue to develop his career expertise in increasingly creative ways. He explores the mythology of American culture through the study of cartoons and draws parallels between Bugs Bunny and Odysseus. “We journey back into childhood for games and street rhymes, Miss Lucy and Ring-around-a-rosy, and visiting educators wonder what’s going on in this classroom.” (p.356)
He very much becomes a member of the sandwich generation when his mother moves to New York to be near her sons and her new grandchildren. She requires an increasing amount of care as she experiences increased frailty, emphysema, and breaks a hip due to a fall and mostly likely to osteoporosis. She seemed to have entered a period of terminal decline and was miserable enough to remark on the night of her death, “I’m not fine. I’m fed up, I told you. I just want to die.” (p.358)
His father, Malachy McCourt died in Belfast in 1985. “I thought of a line from Emily Dickinson, ‘After great pain a formal feeling comes.’ I had the formal feeling, but not pain.” (p.364) And though he wondered, “Why should I fly to Belfast to the funeral of a man who went off to work in England and drank every penny of his wages?” (p.364) he went with his brother Alphie and, “buried him on a hill overlooking Belfast.” (p.366)