Passed/Failed: An education in the life of Frank McCourt, author

'I never saw a master joke or smile'
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Frank McCourt, 75, was a high-school teacher in New York City before writing the bestselling and prizewinning 'Angela's Ashes', followed by ''Tis'. His latest book, 'Teacher Man', has just been published

We went to school in a state of terror; it was education with the stick, the strap and the cane. They beat the catechism into us. If we were slightly late, we were literally shaking as we went towards Leamy's National School in Limerick. It was a Dickensian scene, the schoolteacher having a good time at your expense.

You wouldn't get away with that in New York - some of the kids I taught there became football players and could have broken me in two! I'd have flourished at school in the States.

In Ireland, we were stymied and paralysed. If you went to a "National" school, you were going to be hewers of wood and drawers of water. We wouldn't dare ask a question; only in extreme urgency would we ask for a lavatory pass. Only when I was writing Teacher Man did it occur to me that I never saw a master smile: never a laugh, never a joke.

There was something called the Primary Leaving Certificate, and I passed that well in English, in Irish - and in algebra. In fact, I think the headmaster, Mr O'Halloran, said that I was in the top 10 for algebra in all Ireland. We called him "Hoppy" because he had a short leg. He was very encouraging and once called me a literary genius, but I later met contemporaries who said that they could have killed him.

There were six or seven boys in my class who went about in bare feet, so O'Halloran organised a boot-fund raffle at his own expense and bought shoes with the proceeds. In my family, we always managed to have shoes, but once, when they were falling to pieces, my father covered our soles and heels with squares hacked from an old bicycle tyre; it would have been the depth of shame otherwise.

I was really ill-educated. My mother went to the Christian Brothers' secondary school and asked, "Would there be any chance of getting him in here?". Brother Murray said, "We don't have room for him", and closed the door in our faces. I was delighted because I wanted to start work, but my mother was destroyed by that.

My education stopped in Ireland when I was 14 and resumed when I was 22 at New York University. But I didn't enjoy my four years there and scraped through the teacher's licence exam with a score of 69 (65 was the pass). The higher up you go in American education, the worse the teaching gets. The best teaching is in the state-supported schools, where, as a teacher, you have to be on your toes and use your imagination. At university, I didn't see a teacher who was in any way competent. If they saw a teenager, they'd run in the opposite direction. There wasn't a single class that was of any use when faced with a New York classroom.

I always remember one moment in a class on "The Bible as Literature". At the end, the teacher played "It Ain't Necessarily So": "De t'ings dat yo' li'ble/To read in de Bible/It ain't necessarily so." If he had done more of this, he would have been a hell of a teacher.

Now, I'm on the board of Limerick University. Back then, I'd never have been allowed into university, but these days, I'm a big shot!

At Leamy's National School, some of the teachers were fanatical about the Irish language - it was going to save our culture. Now, I'm starting to remember bits of Irish (I think I ought to see someone about it...). I recently said, "Feac ar an madra" ("Look at that dog" in Irish). The words just came out, a memory from when I was 13. On my deathbed I'll be babbling of green fields - in Gaelic.