Monday, July 20, 2009

R.I.P. Frank McCourt

The New York Times reported last night that Frank McCourt, the Pullitzer Prize winning author of "Angela's Ashes", died of metastatic melanoma. He was 78.

Angela's Ashes, McCourt's memoir of growing up poor in Ireland, touched critics and readers everywhere:

“When I look back on my childhood, I wonder how I survived at all,” the book’s second paragraph begins in a famous passage. “It was, of course, a miserable childhood: The happy childhood is hardly worth your while. Worse than the ordinary miserable childhood is the miserable Irish childhood, and worse yet is the miserable Irish Catholic childhood.

“People everywhere brag and whimper about the woes of their early years, but nothing can compare with the Irish version: the poverty; the shiftless loquacious alcoholic father; the pious defeated mother moaning by the fire; pompous priests; bullying schoolmasters; the English and all the terrible things they did to us for 800 long years."
A former NYC school teacher, first at Ralph R. McKee Vocational High School in Staten Island and then the selective Stuyvesant High School on East 15th St. in Manhattan, McCourt was a raconteur extraordinaire. While he never claimed to be a journalist, he was master of one of jouranlism's most important tools: the art of storytelling. An accompanying article in the Times recounts his methods for teaching his students to write, which involved a lot of storytelling of his own:

He was able to amuse his students and put them at ease, but he was also imparting a lesson. “Looking back, it was all part of a technique,” said Vernon Silver, Stuyvesant class of 1987 and a reporter for Bloomberg News in Rome whose book “The Lost Chalice” has just been published. “He wanted you to tell a story too. At the end of his stories, he would turn it on the class.”

A common exercise was asking students to describe what they had done when they got home the night before. “He would coax it out of us, showing us how to pay attention to mundane but telling details,” Mr. Silver said. “I remember a dialogue with a shy student. The kid said, ‘I did my homework.’ McCourt said: ‘No, no, no. What did you do when you walked in? You went through a door, didn’t you? Did you have anything in your hands? A book bag? You didn’t carry it with you all night, did you? Did you hang it on a hook? Did you throw it across the room and your mom yelled at you for it?’ ”

And on and on, until enough significant glimpses of the boy’s life emerged to begin to paint a picture....
We met him last summer at the Sun Valley Writers conference, first in a jammed breakout session, where he regaled the jam-packed group with tales of the classroom -- when he was most often addressed by "yo, teach" -- and of his disdain, by contrast, of academics and what he saw as their endless bluster on the philosophy of education. Clearly an inspiration to his students, many of whom who have had their own writing careers, he ended by telling us of walking through the Village one night when he ran into a former student.

"Mr McCourt," the former student said. "Remember me? I just wanted to say, thanks to you, I've become a poet."
"That's great, good for you," McCourt said, expecting a long tedious conversation about how he had inspired the kid way back when.
"No, no," the kid said. "I've been dead broke ever since. What I wanted to say was f*** you!"

Later, we ran into McCourt at the Haley airport. "Yo, teach," Tom called out. "Barbara here is a teacher, too." He walked over. "Yeah," I said. "But not the good kind. I teach college."

He shook his head. "College pro-fess-ors," he said with a smirk. "If I had it to do over again, I'd be a college teacher. Easiest job in the world...."

The conversation continued. What he said after that, you'll have to ask me.

photo credit: Hiroko Masuike for the New York Times

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