Frank McCourt, who died in New York City on July 19 after a battle with melanoma, was known to millions as a late-in-life literary sensation, the author, at age 66, of Angela’s Ashes, the 1996 Pulitzer Prize-winning account of his impoverished childhood in Limerick, Ireland. But to a few lucky thousand including myself, McCourt was Mr. McCourt, the beloved storyteller, creative writing teacher, and master of Room 205 in the old Stuyvesant High School on East 15th Street in Manhattan.
At Stuyvesant, where he taught from 1968 to 1987, McCourt was already a larger than life figure. To begin with, though several of our teachers at Stuyvesant in the late 1970s were immigrants, McCourt was the only Irish one. (Few Irish went into teaching—the remnants of the ethnic spoils system created by the party bosses sent them to the police or fire departments.) And, true to the stereotype, McCourt had a glorious brogue and the touch of blarney. He could, with a hint of exaggeration and a twinkle in the eye, turn the most mundane of human interactions into an amusing anecdote.
And we knew that, unlike most of his colleagues, he didn’t dash out after school to catch the Ronkonkoma line to a quiet life in the suburbs. McCourt spent his evenings at places like the Lion’s Head in Greenwich Village regaling folks like Jimmy Bres-lin and Pete Hamill with the tales that would later form the basis of his books. Then there was the fact that he was the brother of Malachy McCourt, a bit actor and host of a popular talk program on WMCA radio. Getting straight A’s meant little in my family (like all Stuyvesant homes) because accomplishment was routinely expected, but having Malachy McCourt’s brother as a teacher, that was a reason to discuss English class.
As a teacher, McCourt transcended all of this. His creative writing classes were both deeply entertaining and profoundly educational, thanks to his literary sensibilities and a unique approach to what he would have mockingly called pedagogy.
As McCourt recounted in Teacher Man, the 2005 memoir of his career, he developed his teaching style while starting out near the bottom of the New York City public school food chain, at McKee Vocational and Technical High School on Staten Island. After failing to gain control of his classroom through tough discipline and bawdy humor, McCourt decided that the best way to get students to focus was to get them to think about something that really interested them: themselves. Students, he noted, who did not have the slightest literary imagination when it came to the classics, were incredibly creative when it came, say, to forging excuse notes.
McCourt learned to pitch his teaching to his students, to get us to reflect on what was happening around us. The first day in class with him was like no other I experienced. Rather than starting off with a turgid lecture on sentence structure or the use of adjectives or alliteration, McCourt made a few jokes about ambitious Stuyvesant students (none of whom, he noted, would ever deign to return to teach creative writing) and told us stories that showed how we all had it easier than he did in the old country. Then, after a few words about the importance of description to writing, he asked us what we had for dinner last night. Most students, myself included, still reeling from his biting wit and tales of Irish woe, couldn’t remember what we’d eaten, but the details came back to us slowly, along with an assignment to write an essay about our dinner.
Similar assignments followed, from describing dinner conversations to writing about our subway rides home and fights with our siblings and the neighborhood toughs. Those of us brave enough (and I was rarely a part of that crowd) to read our essays aloud risked being subjected to the same black humor and sarcasm—lovingly delivered with a wry smile—that would later fill the pages of Angela’s Ashes.
McCourt’s cynicism, and his occasional eruptions in traditional Irish song, had a point. Stuyvesant was the most elite of New York’s science and math high schools, a place where, in McCourt’s day, 700 entering students were selected from the 13,000 who took the grueling placement exam. But Stuyvesant was not a place for flights of fancy. Two-thirds of the students were boys, most were Jewish, and almost all were pre-professional, focused on the sciences. McCourt wanted to draw us out, to make us feel both our emotions and the magic around us, and to see, as he did, humor even in pain. My classmates from troubled backgrounds and dysfunctional homes found writing for him a means of unburdening their souls. Though thankfully free of those encumbrances, I was filled with more than my fair share of adolescent neuroses and addressed them in my assignments. Personal reflections were never subjected to McCourt’s acerbic wit.
The last essay I wrote for him, for which he gave me an unheard of 96 (he was one of the last of the tough graders) was, per the assignment, a totally fictional account of the humiliation of being pelted with eggs on Halloween. While I had never been so pelted, my experience as a short, skinny 16-year-old Jewish kid from Queens left me with plenty of other assorted humiliations to draw upon. I still feel pride from his praise of the emotions I expressed in my essay.
Frank McCourt was a wonderful teacher. He wanted us to take our blinders off, reflect on the world broadly, get off the professional treadmill, and note the things around us. He was able to touch us so effectively, I suspect, because, just as he sought to escape the suffocating provincialism of Limerick, he knew many of us were seeking to escape the parochialism of our own families’ lives.
But in the end, as much as he wanted to impart these gifts to us, I think—I hope—we imparted as much to him. And, for all his mocking of student ambitions, he is the one who, following his own advice, wrote about himself and left the biggest legacy of all.