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It's a Long Road to Pedagogy

Susan Notes:
I'm only on page 39 of Frank McCourt's Teacher Man, but this one anecdote is worth the price of the book.

Here's the setup: Frank McCourt, child of grinding poverty documented in Angela's Ashes, immigrates to the States, serves in the military and persuades NYU to let him in (although he'd never been to high school). In his words "I was expert at making excuses for late papers and missed exams. I shuffled and mumbled the mishaps of my life to patient professors, hinted at great sadness. The Irish accent helped. I lived on the edge of faith and begorrah."

Then in Chapter 1: It's a Long Road to Pedagogy, at McKee Vocational and Technical High School in the Borough of Staten Island, New York City, he faces his first bunch of high school students.

by Frank McCourt

The problem of the sandwich started when a boy named Petey called out, Anyone wan' a baloney sandwich?

You kiddin'? Your mom must hate you, givin' you sandwiches like that.

Petey threw his brown-paper sandwich bag at the critic, Andy, and the class cheered. Fight, fight, they said. Fgiht, fight. The bag landed on the floor between the blackboard and Andy's front-row desk.

I came from behind my desk and made the first sound of my teaching career: Hey. Four years of higher education at New York Universty and all I could think of was Hey.

I said it again. Hey.

They ignored me. They were busy promoting the fight that would kill time and divert me from any lesson I might be planning. I moved toward Petey and made my first teacher statement, Stop throwing sandwiches. Petey and the class looked startled. This teacher, new teacher, just stopped a good fight. New teachers are supposed to mind their own business or send for the principal or a dean and everyone knows it's years befor they come. Which means you can have a good fight while waiting. Besides, what are you gonna do with a teacher who tells you stop throwing sandwiches when you already threw the sandwich?

Benny called out from the back of the room, Hey, teach, he awredy threw the sangwidge. No use tellin' him now don't throw the sangwidge. That's the sangwidge there on the floor.

The class laughed. There's nothing sillier in the world than a teacher telling you don't do it after you already did it. One boy covered his mouth and said, Stoopid, and I knew he was referring to me. I wanted to knock him out of his seat, but that would have been the end of my teaching career. Besides, the hand that covered his mouth was huge, and his desk was too small for his body.

Someone said, Yo, Benny, you a lawyer, man? and the class laughed again. Yeah, yeah, they said, and waited for my move. What will this new teacher do?

Professors of education at New York University never lectured on how to handle flying-sandwich situations. They talked about theories and philosophies of education, about moral and ethical imperatives, about the necessity of dealing with the whole child, the gestalt, if you don't mind, the child's felt needs, but never about critical moments in the classroom.

Should I say, Hey, Petey, get up here and pick up that sandwich, or else? Should I pick it up myself and throw it into the wastepaper basket to show my contempt for peope who throw sandwiches while millions starve all over the world?

They had to recognize I was boss, that I was tough, that I'd take none of their shit.

The sandwich, in wax paper, lay halfway out of the bag and the aroma told me there was more to this than baloney. I picked it up and slid it from its wrapping. It was not any ordinary sandich where meat is slapped between slices of tasteless white American bread. This bread was dark and thick, baked by an Italian mother in Brooklyn, bread firm enough to hold slices of a rich baloney, layered with slices of tomato, onions and peppers, drizzled with olive oil and charged with a tongue-daxxling relish.

Trying to read this out loud to my husband, I got this far. Then I said the first word of the next sentence and could go no further. I was laughing so hard tears were rolling down my cheeks. I said the word again. . . "I. . ." Laughter and tears came again. Three times. Finally I managed to get out the full sentence. It's a brilliant lesson in pedagogy.

I ate the sandwich.

It was my first act of classroom management. My mouth, clogged with sandwich, attracted the attention of the class. They gawked up at me, thirty-four boys and girls, average age sixteen. I could see the admiration in their eyes, first teacher in their lives to pick up a sandwich from the floor and eat it in full view.

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— Frank McCourt
Teacher Man


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