If I know anything, I learned it in the high school classrooms of New York City, where over the course of 30 years, I had approximately 12,000 students--boys, girls, what other sexes exist in New York City, indeterminate. Whatever I know, I've learned from them, because I think I was ignorant. Not illiterate, but ignorant. I'd never been to high school myself. And that's the best way to become a high school teacher--to know nothing.
I think my students understood that I knew nothing. And they helped me, they took pity on me. Especially the girls. The girls thought I was cute at that time. I had black hair, and I had this fumbling, awkward look about me, and they would help. They'd take the attendance, they'd distribute books, get book receipts and so on. The girls took beauty culture. And then they'd say, "Oh, Mr. McCourt, you have such nice hair, but it is a mess. Why don't you come up to beauty culture and we'll do you." Well, I declined that invitation. That was a dangerous invitation.
So I was learning in the classroom. I was learning to get rid of maybe the pomposity that I had developed as a college student at New York University. There were professors of education who really didn't know much about teaching in high schools. A lot of them, if they saw a teenager, they'd run a mile. But they told us all about how to perform in high school classrooms. And I had to learn--this is the point of this whole thing--I had to learn something about myself. I had to take off the teacher mask, which so many of us put on at the beginning; the mask that says: "Well, I'm the teacher and I know it all. You sit there and I'll tell you."