Frank McCourt, 1930-2009
readers of this newspaper have come to know frank mccourt in a different way over the past several years. as someone who thought there were too many unsung heroes in the classroom, mccourt was kind enough to play host to manhattan media's annual blackboard awards, affairs honoring new york city's top schools and teachers. audiences marveled at the chance to see this expert storyteller who had a penchant for sticking it to the powers that be, including boneheaded administrators, media outlets in search of the next salacious story and politicians who liked to tell teachers how to do their jobs, a perennial target of his scorn.
but what probably resonated most with the teachers and principals being honored at these events was the fact that mccourt was one of them. a veteran public school teacher, this pulitzer prize-winning writer said he had a hard time letting go of his first career. that was clear when mccourt regaled attendees with tales of his time in the classroom, hitting themes that were just as relevant today as they were 20 years ago. it was comforting knowing that someone had gone through the trenches just like them and understood the rewards and frustrations of a career in education.
mccourt, perhaps more than anyone, could articulate classroom idiosyncrasies with humor and warmth, and of course that lilting irish brogue. it was a talent we were lucky to see first-hand-and one that we will miss dearly.
mr. mccourt's famous first lesson
a class of distracted teens and a teacher with an undiscovered gift for writing
by susan jane gilman
the first day of frank mccourt's creative writing class at stuyvesant high school, i take a seat at a desk and wait. most teachers, to me, look like diane arbus portraits. not the man who walks into room 205. he's handsome, graceful, alert-so much so, in fact, that it doesn't seem possible he's really a teacher.
most teachers begin their classes each semester fulfilling the bureaucratic inanities of the new york city board of education. not this one. he merely points to a kid in the middle row and calls out: "you. what's your name?"
"what did you have for dinner last night, louis?"
this, we will later discover, is mccourt's famous first lesson. he goes around the room, prodding us to remember. most of us teenagers are rampant exhibitionists, but only in the hallways. now, we squirm, trying to deflect the attention as we offer up such seemingly banal responses as pork chops. lasagna. half a grapefruit and a tab. i'm on a diet.
mr. mccourt seems to consider each answer before he moves on. under his gaze, the answer "pop tarts" suddenly seems freighted with meaning.
although he hasn't told us to, a number of us have begun writing down our classmates' responses in case there's a test on them.
finally, he walks to the front of the room. "okay. why is it so important for you to know what any of you ate for dinner last night? why should you remember something like that?"
when no one responds, mr. mccourt shakes his head. "listen to the details," he implores. "listen to what your fellow students are saying. louis here ate spaghetti last night. sung-hee had korean food. brian had cube steak. what does this tell you?"
we all sit dumbly.
suddenly, though, images start to form in my head. if you're warming up cube steak in a toaster oven, well, that suggests you're cooking dinner at home alone, doesn't it? where's your mom? maybe your parents are divorced. i see louis at a tiny kitchen table covered with contact-paper. grubby plastic salt 'n pepper shakers. a single light bulb overhead, a window overlooking an airshaft. subway trains rumbling beneath the apartment.
then i picture sung-hee and her family dressed in brocaded silk robes around a low, lacquered table. candles in paper lanterns have been lit. sung-hee's mother sets a platter in the center of the table with a ceremonial little bow. it's a bad asian cliché, of course, but the image is vivid to me.
this, i realize, is what you can derive from hearing about what someone ate for dinner.
and it's a helen keller moment-the writing equivalent of annie sullivan sticking my hand beneath a water pump. mr. mccourt is trying to get us to see how you can divine a multitude of stories about someone from just a few facts. it's what the writer's trade calls "a significant detail." just one or two can conjure up a whole portrait, dilate your imagination, brush-stroke a scene.
i love it. i'm heady with comprehension.
but i haven't gotten it all, really. "in order to write," mr. mccourt announces, "you have to remember. you have to remember the details. you have to remember your childhood, and what it was like to be a child, and you have to continue to approach the world with that same, childlike enthusiasm. to children, everything is interesting, nothing is unimportant. children don't slouch about moaning and groaning 'i dunno' or 'oh, this is boring.'"
this is 15 years before angela's ashes will be published. none of us at this time, lest of all mr. mccourt himself, know how prescient his words are-how he, more than anyone else, will heed this lesson-and how famous he will become. at this moment, he is, as we say dismissively, only a teacher.
what did you eat for dinner last night? he stood among us privileged, indolent upper west side stuyvesantians with our eyeliner and fancy backpacks, as we chewed gum and doodled and watched the clock, and rattled off unappreciatively: i dunno. tuna casserole. meat loaf. shake'n'bake chicken.
if we had ever been curious enough to ask him what he'd eaten for dinner as a child, we would've heard: almost nothing. though for christmas one year, we did get a pig's head in a bucket from the saint vincent depaul society.
he'd spent his childhood starving. yet he stood there quietly, listening to our answers, treating us as if we were valuable, as if what we had to say was actually poetry. and to him, perhaps, it really was.
susan jane gilman is a bestselling author and former student of frank mccourt who credits much of her success to him. her most recent book is undress me in the temple of heaven.
a class act from the classroom
frank mccourt turned to his first career-teaching-for inspiration in his 2005 memoir, teacher man. the book spans his entire career in the classroom, starting with flying baloney sandwiches on his first day to his final dismissal bell at stuyvesant high school.
"teaching is harder than anything in the world," he said in a 2005 interview.
even 20 years out of the classroom, mccourt said he still thought of himself more as a teacher than a writer. an avid talker with a gift for storytelling, he said he often had to tell himself to shut up because "the teacher constantly keeps coming over me."
mccourt, best known for his pulitzer prize-winning memoir angela's ashes, decided he had a story to tell about teaching after finishing his second memoir, 'tis, which picked up where angela left off.
"after it was published, i had the nagging feeling i'd given teaching short shrift," he wrote in the prologue it teacher man. "in america, doctors, lawyers, generals, actors, television people and politicians are admired and rewarded. not teachers. teaching is the downstairs maid of professions."
mccourt taught in a number of new york city schools: in staten island's mckee vocational and technical high school, seward park high school on the lower east side, and finally at stuyvesant, a top-notch public school known for its nobel laureates and intel scholars.
teacher man began as a novel, he said, but "nothing i made up could compare with what actually happened."
on publicity rounds after the book's publication, mccourt participated in a fundraiser reading at stuyvesant. former students, many now writers themselves, were eager to reunite with their beloved teacher.
"it's very gratifying, yeah," mccourt said of seeing so many of his protégés find success in writing.
but, he added humbly, "they were talented anyway. i take that with a grain of salt."
'every moment of your life, you're writing'
listen. are you listening? you're not listening. i am talking to those of you in this class who might be interested in writing.
every moment of your life, you're writing. even in your dreams you're writing. when you walk the halls in this school you meet various people and you write furiously in your head. there's the principal. you have to make a decision, a greeting decision. will you nod? will you smile? will you say, good morning, mr. baumel? or will you simply say, hi? you see someone you dislike. furious writing again in your head. decision to be made. turn your head away? stare as you pass? nod? hiss a hi? you see someone you like and you say, hi, in a warm melting way, a hi that conjures up splash of oars, soaring violins, eyes shining in the moonlight. there are so many ways of saying hi. hiss it, trill it, bark it, sing it, bellow it, laugh it, cough it. a simple stroll in the hallway calls for paragraphs, sentences in your head, decisions galore.
i'll do this as a male because women, for me, still remain the great mystery. i could tell you stories.
are you listening? there's a girl in this school you've fallen in love with. you happen to know she's broken up with someone else so the field is clear. you'd like to go out with her. oh, the writing now sizzles in your head. you might be one of those cool characters who could saunter up to helen of troy and ask her what she's doing after the siege, that you know a nice lamb-and-ouzo place in the ruins of ilium.
the cool character, the charmer, doesn't have to prepare much of a script. the rest of us are writing.
you call her to see if she'll go out with you on saturday night. you're nervous. rejection will lead you to the edge of the cliff, the overdose. you tell her, on the phone, you're in her physics class. she says, doubtfully, oh, yeah. you ask if she's busy saturday night. she's busy. she has something planned, but you suspect she's lying. a girl cannot admit she has nothing to do on saturday night. it would be un-american. she has to put on the act. god, what would the world say? you, writing in your head, ask about the following saturday night and all the other saturdays stretching into infinity. you'll settle for anything, you poor little schmuck, anything as long as you can see her before you start collecting social security. she plays her little game, tells you call her again next week and she'll see. yeah, she'll see. she sits home on saturday night watching tv with her mother and aunt edna, who never shuts up. you sit home saturday night with your mother and father, who never say anything. you go to bed and dream that next week, oh, god, next week, she might say yes and if she does you have it all planned, that cute little italian restaurant on columbus avenue with the red and white checked tablecloth and the chianti bottles holding those dripping white candles.
dreaming, wishing, planning: it's all writing, but the difference between you and the man on the street is that you are looking at it, friends, getting it set in your head, realizing the significance of the insignificant, getting it on paper. you might be in the throes of love or grief but you are ruthless in observation. you are your material. you are writers and one thing is certain: no matter what happens on saturday night, or any other night, you'll never be bored again. never. nothing human is alien to you. hold your applause and pass up your homework.
saying goodbye to high school
when guy lind was a sophomore he brought an umbrella to school on a snowy slushy day. he met a friend on the second floor who also had an umbrella. they began to fence with their umbrellas till the friend slipped and the tip of his umbrella pierced through guy's eye and left him paralyzed on one side.
they took him to beth israel hospital across the street and that started a long journey from city to city and country to country. they even took him to israel, where the fighting keeps them up to date on trauma and treatment.
guy returned to school in a wheelchair and wearing a black eye patch. after a while he made his way through the corridors with the help of a walking stick. eventually he discarded the stick and you wouldn't know of his accident except for the black eye patch and an arm that lay useless on the desk.
here was guy in my last class listening to rachel blaustein on the other side of the room. she was talking about a poetry class she took with mrs. kocela. she enjoyed the class and the way mrs. kocela taught poetry but it was really a waste of time for her. what was there to write about when everything in her life was perfect: her parents happy and successful; rachel the only child and headed for harvard; rachel with perfect health?
i told her she could add beauty to her catalogue of perfection.
she smiled, but the question remained, what was there to write about?
someone said, i wish i had your troubles, rachel. she smiled again.
guy told of his experiences in the past two years. for all he went through he wouldn't want to change anything. in hospital after hospital he met people shattered, sick, suffering in silence. he said all this put his accident in a different perspective. it took him out of himself. no, he wouldn't change a thing.
this is their last high school class, and mine. there are tears and expressions of wonder that guy is sending us on our way with a story that reminds us to count our blessings.
the bell rings and they sprinkle me with confetti. i am told to have a good life. i wish them the same. i walk, color speckled, along the hallway.
someone calls, hey, mr. mccourt, you should write a book.
excerpts from the pre-pulitzer years
in 1987, a teacher at stuyvesant high school began writing a regular column for west side spirit called "forays." frank mccourt would profile the town's most colorful drinking holes, houses of worship and schools. his unique observations quickly became reader favorites.
"they're the three most important institutions in society, but no one pays attention to them," mccourt said as he inaugurated his column.
now, the pulitzer prize winner is a household name worldwide. this week, we pay tribute to mccourt's life with excerpts from some of our favorite columns of his.
the children's storefront
east 129th street
oneisha hall is 13 and a 7th-grader at children's storefront, a tuition-free private elementary school in manhattan. she came here a year ago from i.s. 10 on 149th street and seventh avenue, because "the teachers don't teach what they should teach. all they do is prepare tests from books" and when you fail the tests, you feel hopeless. she said of one teacher: "i knew i could do better, but the way he was giving the low marks, i just gave up."
at children's storefront it's different. here, "the teachers don't underestimate you," she said. "they believe in you. they don't put you down."
oneisha will be a member of the first 8th-grade graduating class. she is reading johnny tremain, jump ship to freedom, huckleberry finn and a biography of harriet tubman. she likes reading now because her teacher listens to what she says and doesn't care what her friends say.
"they say, 'this ain't no school.' they say this is just an old house," oneisha said. "but they don't know. teachers here care for you. they help you. they prepare you for the world. they give you books. there's so much this school offers. i don't think there's another school on earth like this school."
founder and headmaster ned o'gorman cautioned me against inaccurate quoting or paraphrasing of his remarks. that, he said, drives him crazy. so?i'll tread carefully, ned. i'll tell them how i made my way through mean streets, past-bricked-up houses that reminded me of belfast, past vacant lots that are not vacant but choked with garbage, to the children's storefront-a house, fire-engine red-up the steps to the office on the second floor to find you on the phone, your door open (i don't think you like doors, ned), your eye on the stairs and the halls, the comings and goings, talking all the time, to the children, teachers, parents, me. and you talk to yourself, making notes on light blue memo pads. you talk business on the phone and seem incapable of ending a conversation without inviting someone to dinner-or suggesting a party. you miss nothing: when david bucknell, 5th-grade teacher, tells you he's having a publishing day celebration for the writers in his class, you are quick to suggest food for the party.
david andress, assistant teacher, is 19, visiting from britain. in september, he'll return to london to pursue a degree in physics, but while here he'll work at the storefront. "it's a caring school," he said, "with a strong sense of compassion," and even though there is a strong academic curriculum, learning takes place in an atmosphere of love. "the door is always open here," said o'gorman. "parents wander in and out. i've cooked here. i've washed dishes here."
ideas and details jostle for place in his speech; his talk is peppered with references to literature, philosophy, religion. he quoted st. bonaventure: "the mind is omniform," when he wanted to buttress his views on the educational capabilities of black children. anyone can learn and "oppressed people" are generally underestimated.
writers and drinkers inhabit lion's head the lion's head
59 christopher street
the best thing to do on a dungeon of a january day is to wander into the lion's head bar on christopher street and say hello to paul schiffman, the only bartender in the world who is a retired sea captain and a published poet. he says, "how's it going, mate?" sets up your drink and gets a little shivering spasm. "someone walked on my grave?at sea?must be jesus." it is generally agreed by experts, of which there is no lack at the lion's head, that paul schiffman, off-duty, can drink anyone under the table and into the basement. it's nothing for him to knock back a few martinis, wash them down with tumblers of irish whiskey, and discourse most eloquently on moby dick while quoting a few yards from the book to buttress whatever point he's making.
writers and drinkers. that's the lion head. that sums it up. and they seem to be either irish or jewish. mike riordan, bartender and part owner, said: "there are 40 percent irish, 40 percent jewish and 20 percent interlopers."
it's peaceful now at the bar, with nothing to distract you but satchmo on the jukebox asking if someone will give him a kiss to build a dream on and his imagination will make that moment last. if you want to know anything about louis armstrong, benny carter, charlie parker or billie holliday, drop in and ask bartender tommy butler and he'll roam the world of jazz until you're dizzy, and when you weary of music talk ask him who played shortstop for the minneapolis geegaws in 1912 and if he doesn't know-well, it isn't worth knowing.
tommy butler is the most magisterial bartender in new york, a man of rabelaisian girth and gusto, a prelate of the pub. his colleague, mike riordan, said: "a great bartender is one who can count money while he's drinking" though it's seldom you'll see these men quaff behind the bar. it's the pride. no, not the pride. the style.
joe flaherty had the style: in his living and in his writing, he was the most elegant essayist in the village voice. flaherty and butler went to aqueduct together, drank, talked about sports, women and politics, and when flaherty died of cancer a bit of butler's spirit crumbled. he goes to aqueduct no more.
mcsorley's and riverrun:
two great manhattan pubs
mcsorley's ale house, 15 e. 7th st.
you wouldn't want to go to mcsorley's ale house on st. patrick's day, or its eve, because you won't get in-not if you waved a million yen, not if you were the pope's only son.
eschew the hubbub and stay at home the evening of march 15. switch on channel 13 at 12:30 a.m. and watch a documentary on mcsorley's, written by peter and tom quinn, produced and directed by marcia rock. if you haven't been to mcsorley's already, this film will surely whet your appetite whether you're toper or history.
after you've watched the documentary, take down a copy of joseph mitchell's mcsorley's wonderful saloon, a wonderful collection of new yorker pieces gathered together in 1943, affording us glimpses into an old new york gone but not forgotten in its oldest pub, mcsorley's.
read mitchell: "it is a drowsy place; the bartenders never make a needless move, the customers nurse their mugs of ale and the three clocks on the wall have not been in agreement for years."
not any more, joseph. now there is clatter galore, not to mention laughing and arguing and wooing, yes, wooing. the ladies are here-but we'll get to that in a minute? the bartenders rush back and forth begirt in the old white aprons, but under the aprons they are doubly begirt in plastic trash bags, for it's wet work pouring nightly, thousands of steins of ale, light and dark, and washing the steins in the hot and cold sinks. and the clocks have given up altogether, joe. after 134 years, enough is enough.
visions of sugarplums
p.s. 75 on 96th street and
west end avenue
the children in asaye takagi's class at p.s. 75 on 96th street and west end avenue don't like the state of the world and they want action in 1988. fourth and 5th graders, these future voters are keeping an eye on the planet they'll shortly have a ruling interest in. when asked what changes they'd like to see in the new year, they are eloquent about the homeless.
deidre stokes says she'd like the poor to live in a nice home. they'd be lucky to live with deirdre: she (or her family) has five vcr's-two in the living room, two in her parent's room, one in her bedroom.
linda rodriguez is unhappy with the president. "i hope that in 1988, ronald reagan is not president because he put a lot of people out of their homes and onto the street because they were not as rich as he was and started having condos built when most people can't afford them because they are not rich like him," she said. "i also hope that the streets are cleaner and there are no more homeless people in the street and there is no more crack, pot, coke, etc., and no more drunk drivers and no more rapists, murderers, muggers, robbers and no more nuclear weapons and that the world is a better place to live in."
selina lugo worries about garbage. "what i would like to see in 1988 is for them to pick up garbage from the floor and to fix buildings, take kids from the street and put them in homes and not to take drugs," she said. "and who i would like to meet is my mother, who died when i was 3."
"i have always dreamed of magic being a realism," said danny morgenroth. "i wish that in 1988, something would be created that can alter the flowing of time. it would be a personal possession that could do one or more of the following-stop time, travel to the future or the past."
elizabeth belfor would like to heal the world retroactively. "i hate that the world won't blend together," she said. "it's like red, beige, yellow and black. if you try to mix it, it will turn ugly. i'd like to fix it, so all the cultures will fit in like blocks. i'd try to fix it by going back in time and making all the people work together to form one culture."
over in the corner is maria mouzos and she has a more personal wish for next year. "my dream is that i could be a star and a dancer and a singer," she said. "and all the men to love me and throw flowers at me." ah, maria!
"listen to me," said jason torres. "my dream is for all the homeless people to get off the street and get into taxis so they could get a house and the one i'd like to meet is l.l. cool j-'cause he's fresh and he's the best rapper."
judson memorial church:
exploration and "humanness"
judson memorial church
66 wash. square south
the judson memorial church on the first sunday of 1988 was a long way from limerick, ireland, and a long time since burly redemptorist priests thundered at us from the high pulpit, threatening us with hellfire and damnation for interfering with ourselves, casting out seed upon the ground and other desperate things. you shivered with terror but you knew at the same time you were getting a good show, gratis.
this was the stuff of colorful drama: his reverence up there with his biretta perched on his head, the cross sparkling on his chest, the white collar, black cassock and behind him on the pillar, a great crucifix with christ twisting in the last agony. beyond was the high altar, its spires reaching towards the vaulted gothic roof, the golden-roofed tabernacle, flowers, incense, gorgeously robed priests, stained-glass windows, statues, paintings, stations of the cross, altar boys in red and white, the booming organ and heartbreaking choir above us.
none of that at the judson, which has baptist connections. the 30-foot wooden cross that once dominated the church is gone. (northern baptists are sensitive about symbols that may trigger memories of the ku klux klan, who often met in baptist churches.) except for stained-glass windows and an unused marble altar, this could be a meeting place for the society of friends or a group of political activists.
a frank memoir
one colleague's fond recollections
by tom allon
"when i look back on our teaching days i wonder how we managed to survive at all. it was of course, a miserable career: the happy career is hardly worth your while. worse than the ordinary miserable teaching career is the miserable high school teaching career, and worse yet is the miserable new york public high school teaching career."
this is how i'd imagine a frank mccourt memoir about our teaching days together at stuyvesant high school might begin.
we used to meet in the hallway near the principal's office-frank shuttling off to his fifth-period creative-writing class and me to my junior journalism students.
we'd stop and chat, exchanging tales of woe-like two inmates in the prison cafeteria before afternoon kitchen duty-but i'd always linger longer than i would with the other teachers because with frank you knew you'd get a fun story, a fresh insight or a provocative question that would relieve the numbing grind for the rest of the day.
even then, frank was recognized as a gifted storyteller by his students and colleagues who would listen raptly in the classroom or huddle around him at the bar as he regaled us with his now-famous epic tales of childhood misery.
to many of us, it wasn't a question of if, but when, frank's talent would reveal itself to the world outside of east 15th street and first avenue.
foreshadowing: at a stuyvesant student awards ceremony, jerzy (being there) kosinski offhandedly told mccourt that he, too, would make it one day.
"yeah, but when?" said frank.
during one of our impromptu chats in the hallway, frank became animated when i told him i was the child of holocaust survivors. "so, you think you'd ever marry a non-jew?" he asked.
"no," i remember answering quite definitively. "it would betray all the suffering my family has experienced."
frank told me he was intrigued by the whole question of intermarriage; two of his brothers, malachy and alphie, good ol' lapsed irish catholics, were, at one time or another, married to jewish women.
"it reminds me of what my mother, the late angela mccourt, once complained about," he said in the endearing brogue of his. "there's notin' in this family but protestants and jews, jews and protestants. god above, every time i cross the floor i'm trippin' over little protestants and jews."
i strolled on to my classroom grinning.
at my wedding, about four years later, i was reminded of the comment i made to frank about never marrying a non-jew. technically, i had kept my vow; my presbyterian-born bride had converted to judaism, but the twinkle in frank's eye when i told him about my fiancée spoke volumes.
when the time came for toasts, a few close friends from college followed my brother up to the podium, and then a british fellow who worked with my wife. right after he made his brief remarks, frank sauntered to the microphone.
"i wasn't planning on making a toast, but when i saw an englishman get up here-and since they've oppressed the irish for hundreds of years-i knew i couldn't leave it at that?"
he got the crowd going with that. the rest of his discursive comments are a bit foggy in my memory-except a george bernard shaw quote that he cited as an admonition: "marriage is popular because it combines the maximum of temptation with the maximum of opportunity."
when frank's comments went on a bit longer than the englishman who preceded him, the brit heckled, "shaw also said, 'all the world's a stage?unfortunately.'"
frank's toast is the one highlight missing from the wedding video. i never bothered to check if the guy we hired went to the john and missed it or if in his seemingly indiscriminate editing, he decided for some reason to slice it.
i guess it's hard to blame him because, after all, it was 1993, three years before angela's ashes appeared, four years before the pulitzer prize and six years before the movie premiere and long awaited sequel, 'tis, that would continue to burnish the frank mccourt legend.
one old high school friend kidded me that if i had that toast on videotape i could probably sell it to a tv newsmagazine or auction it on ebay, at the very least.
i miss those chance meetings in the hallway with frank between classes. he had moved to the upper west side, not far from where i live, but i'd only run into him once or twice in the past few years.
we spoke every few months, when i could catch him at home between book tours, lectures, writing conferences, interviews, book parties, charity events and other demands on his time. it was a vicarious thrill to see his name pop up everywhere and to see that sometimes in life talent does win out in the end.
"i'm a beacon of hope to all geriatrics," frank once told me. "don't give up, you can keep doing it into your 70s, practically your 80s." and sometimes listening to him talk about teaching, you realize that in spite of society's view, it is a noble calling. at least in frank's case, it worked out for the best.
"whatever i know about writing i learned from teaching," he said. "they kept asking me questions and provoked me to tell stories, and in return i would provoke them to tell stories. the interaction was very fruitful."
so wasn't it a great profession altogether?
tom allon is president and ceo of manhattan media. he taught at stuyvesant high school with frank mccourt from 1986 to 1987.
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