My Memories of Frank McCourt, the Stuyvesant High School English Teacher
When I was in high school I, like many teens, believed myself to be a misfit, the only alienated person in the room. I found respite in Frank McCourt’s English classes at Stuyvesant High.We knew him as Frank, among the circle of protégés of which I was proud to consider myself a part. English class with Frank involved him sitting on his desk telling us stories about his Irish childhood; then, he passed out purple mimeograph sheets and led us in Irish drinking songs: Nancy Nancy, Nancy whiskey, Whiskey whiskey, Nancy-o.
Everything about Frank’s was a snub of the establishment. It was not just his voluminous charms and wisdom, but this insouciant, even reckless, posture against authority that made us embrace him as ally and advocate—no matter he sometimes snubbed us as well. He was a fierce mentor, complicated, loveable, moody, and occasionally mean. It can’t be fun interacting for seven hours a day, year upon year, with self-important, brash sixteen year olds convinced that they are destined for Harvard or M.I.T. and are therefore smarter than anyone with a station so lowly as teacher.
My senior year, on the last day of Frank’s Irish literature course, he came in and held up a stack of our papers, our “senior theses.” Mine was on Edna O’Brien, and I recall having labored on it heartily. Even today I find this author’s work difficult, so it’s plausible I’d made no sense at all in my attempt to say something pithy or intelligent about her. As I did not save my own copy, however, I never got the chance to have a second look. Frank waved the stack in the air while abusing us all as callow and short-sighted. Then, with dramatic flourish, he tore our papers into tiny bits and deposited the whole mess in the trash can. It was unclear he’d actually read them, and he certainly hadn’t bothered to grade them. That was that. How he arrived at our final grades for the course remained a mystery—though I recall he was an easy grader. This, no doubt, contributed to his popularity.
Another time, he sat on his desk and opened the class, as usual, with a comforting phrase we’d grown accustomed to hearing, that always came as a relief during schooldays punctuated with threats and taunts from other teachers who felt it their duty to work us dry. “Sit back. I’m going to tell you a story,” Frank said in his brogue, dangling his feet and looking off into a middle distance, as if transitioning into the special mind space of the Homerian, oral epic-tellers. This day, he went on to deliver a finely crafted short story, with a neat arc rising between a polished beginning and ending. This was unlike his usual tales, more often freewheeling episodes from the grand narrative that we would later read in print in 1996, as Angela’s Ashes; I don’t remember ever reading this story among his published work. In this tale, an old man is living parasitically with his grown daughter and son-in-law. One day he falls asleep on the couch, only to leave a kettle boiling on the stove. The daughter comes home and discovers it poker-hot and gleaming, setting off an argument that results in the father’s getting booted from the apartment. When Frank finished, he got quiet and stared at us for a long time. “That is my story,” he finally hissed. “Don’t you ever dare steal it.” I felt the red hot burn of that kettle in his gaze.
That didn’t faze me, or his other defenders. I started waiting for the appearance of that story. Instead, a classmate of mine published a short story in The New Yorker that fall of our graduation, which was soon chosen by Raymond Carver for the year’s Best American Short Stories, and subsequently for the best of the decade.
I nevertheless left Stuyvesant bragging to everyone I knew about my association with this legendary teacher, despite his utter lack of fame among anyone who hadn’t been his student or one of their parents. No one had the faintest idea what I was talking about. He hadn’t published a word as a writer; the public wouldn’t hear of Frank McCourt for another decade and a half, when he finally surprised none of us with the brilliant literary success of that first memoir.
His lessons, not to mention the inspirational tale of his life and career, remain important reminders to me about living an authentic life, pursuing what really matters. How odd it is for me today to have to admit I learned that lesson at Stuyvesant High School. The world of our school was competitive and cruel, at least as I saw it in adolescence. This was the mid-1980s, at the renowned prep school for the city’s working class. Not a day went by a teacher didn’t browbeat us about the responsibility inherent in our status as the city’s “intellectual elite”—bound for M.I.T., CalTech, Harvard, or Stanford. One time a less sympathetic teacher held up my physics exam in front of the class to announce I’d received the lowest grade in the room. “Eighty fi–” he bellowed, before looking it over a second time and realizing I’d mustered through with a 93—yes, still a bad grade at Stuy.
I believe grade grubbing was invented at my high school. Ninety-nine-and-a-half was never enough. Teachers often left time at the end of class sessions to barter with students over that extra quarter point. The one time my classmates got political—shutting down the Brooklyn Bridge after a staged walkout from school—it was over the issue of whether teachers should be compensated for time spent writing college recommendation letters (we won that battle). The other time my class made the news was for stealing (using a brilliant ruse, of course) the answers to the state Regents exams.
I liked to believe Frank’s sympathies those days resided with me in judging this atmosphere cruel and soulless.
Since Frank’s death July 19, readers by now are familiar with the lasting admiration among his former students at Stuy. The Times created a blog space for recollections, and some four hundred remote and close acquaintances replied—not all of them alumni, but many, like me, participants and bystanders in his fifteen-year stint as teacher at Stuy. Many of my classmates went on to elite schools, became top scientists, won Nobels in physics and math, or, if not that, succeeded at least as lawyers. Ours was a class of immigrants and children of immigrants, strivers, people for whom the 80s’ promise of wild wealth felt real, and necessary, and just far enough from reach to make it worth the gambit.
Some of us pursued different paths—writers and artists who felt our passions squelched in that grim factory of math formulas memorized by rote and public taunting for grades below ninety-five. We hung out smoking pot in the tenement vestibules across from school, on East 15th Street, an old immigrant neighborhood around the corner from where I live today.
Reading those recollections from Frank’s former students has been an eye-opening and startling experience. It appears I was not alone in my youthful disaffection. Of course everyone wants to claim Frank McCourt today, and perhaps I am no different. It is nonetheless fascinating to see high school refracted through the disparate memories of students from every social set—the nerds, the soc’s, the stoners. Frank, I see now, provided that kind of welcoming reassurance to all kinds of people surviving the miseries of teenhood, as ally and advocate. Perhaps it was simply an Irish warmth that lay behind the genius and grace of his ambivalent mentoring.
Frank broke down the wall between teacher and student, and that, too, explained the fierce loyalty among his followers. He never told us to call him Frank; it somehow became inevitable after he invited us to hear him perform at the annual Bloomsday celebration at the Symphony Space auditorium, where Irish actors and writers from across the city spent twenty-four hours reciting every word of Joyce’s Ulysses. In the 1980s, Frank’s brother Malachy, his co-host at this event, was the greater celebrity, and Frank sometimes seemed to visibly bristle in his shadow. Malachy was a big, booming stage actor. He was more American, more loud and charismatic, bigger in every sense than Frank. He filled up that stage. The first time I attended Bloomsday, I learned that even with one’s mentors there can be a give-and-take, and this seemed an important lesson, too—about how to be human and kind in spite of the seeming configurations of power. When we sat in the audience, our approval seemed as important to Frank, and as hard won, as his was for us.
Early in this decade, I had the opportunity to see another side of Frank’s humanity. I was back in New York, now an author myself; I bumped into Frank from time to time at literary events, where he would squint at me and utter phrases reminiscent of what he wrote in my high school yearbook: “How delightful it was (is) knowing you. I will miss your warmth, charm and beauty. Come back and see me and bring tales of the outside world. Adios and love, Frank McCourt.”
“Ye don’t look a day older than seventeen now yee-self,” he teased me at an event at the National Arts Club in 2002. Around that time people used to whisper that Frank’s brogue was getting heavier, not lighter, the longer he lived in New York. He’d discovered the nameless power of his own exotic-ness. It made me sad to see this kind of sniping, de rigueur in the New York literary world, extended even to someone so willing to be seen as flawed.
One day recently, I saw him in Central Park walking his dog. He looked thinner, his skin whiter and more papery than ever before. He was shrunken, but he still had his rapscallion’s bemused grin, still seemed delighted to pass the time wryly making fun of himself and all the passersby and me. I hadn’t seen him out of the way of his celebrity in a long time, and it brought back the younger, less self-possessed Frank I remembered from the 80s. There was a humility that he somehow communicated in his desire to linger that day, chatting on about nothing, about his dog, the irony that he was famous. Now, I think that humility had something to do with his own sense of impending death. Yet just a month or two later, when I heard the news he was ill—just two months before his death, at a too-young 78—it came as a complete surprise.
This week I am re-reading Angela’s Ashes and trying to recall the lessons I took from Frank McCourt as my first teacher of creative writing. But oddly, I don’t think his important lessons to me reside in his work, which seems the exemplar of the spoken form, the kind of writing you want to burst out and read aloud when you sit in your easy chair reading it to your lonely self. Now that I’ve studied John Gardner and E.M. Forster on what comprise the elements of great plot, now that I teach this stuff for a living myself, I understand technically what Frank was doing those days in the structuring of his tales. But I don’t think he made me understand these fine points then, nor was that ever his intention. I would never have stolen his story of the teapot, even if I’d had the pluck. It wasn’t my kind of story—it was his kind of story, an organic emanation of his particular, epic voice. Frank helped me become a writer because he taught me about the humilities, the grim, dark moments, of a writer’s life, and also about the paradoxical glory one feels believing, deeply, in the value of that life.