by Deb Aronson
Frank McCourt has become rich writing about being grindingly poor. Arriving in America as a teen, having survived a harrowing, poverty-stricken childhood in Ireland, McCourt, who never went to high school, enrolled in college to become a teacher. Many people will be familiar with at least part of his story, told so movingly in his Pulitzer Prize-winning memoir, Angela’s Ashes (1996) and his second memoir, ’Tis (1999).
McCourt struggled for years to make ends meet and figure out what he wanted to do with his life; he likes to say he’s a late bloomer. Angela’s Ashes was published after McCourt retired from teaching, when he was 66. He didn’t have any big plans or hopes for the book; he would have been satisfied just to have it published.
“I’d always been interested in writing, it held a magic to me, but I was teaching five classes a day five days a week. There’s no time,” says McCourt. “Writing for me was the most sacred act in the world. Higher even than sex. It’s god-like, divine. You’re the ultimate creator; you’re using tools that are intangible and invisible, not like a sculptor or a painter. You’re pulling it out of the air. The idea of putting words together always fascinated me. Since I was a small child I was always scribbling something,” says McCourt, who still writes his books by hand in a copybook.
But Angela’s Ashes resonated with readers in a way that is unusual in these days of information overload. That book has sold 4 million copies and been translated into 17 languages. Angela’s Ashes also was well received by critics, receiving the 1997 Pulitzer Prize for biography and the National Book Critics Circle award and catapulting McCourt to fame and fortune. What is the secret to its success?
“I think it has something to do with the perspective of the child,” says McCourt. “I could dig into the mind of a child—children look at the world in a very unsentimental and tough way. That is an aspect of childhood that people want to forget, that children are watchful, always looking out for themselves.”
In his latest memoir, Teacher Man, due out November 15, McCourt talks about his 27-year teaching career, first at McKee Vocational High School on Staten Island, then several other schools, including a community college, until he lands at Stuyvesant High School, one of New York’s most prestigious schools, where he taught for 18 years.
Although it has been more than a decade since he’s been in the classroom, McCourt’s passion has not waned. He still thinks of himself as a teacher first and a writer second. McCourt’s stories of being in the frontlines of teaching will resonate with many teachers. He talks of the struggles to engage the students while keeping the administration and politicians from interfering too much with what he was trying to do.
“Can you imagine politicians barging into a convention of lawyers or surgeons and telling them what to do, how to run their profession?” says McCourt. “Everyone thinks they are experts on education but the teachers are in the trenches, they’re the experts. They know more about kids than anybody, but they get the word from Washington.”
And what, in McCourt’s estimation, makes a good teacher?
“Inventiveness, creativity, imagination, energy, sense of humor, have to have humor with the kids, compassion, kindness, a certain amount of scholarship, and the instincts of a dog,” he says. “I could sniff the air, sniff the mood of the class, and feel it out. You have to have the instincts of a parent, a politician and, from time to time, of a dictator.
“George Bernard Shaw said those who can’t do, teach. That’s bullshit. Teaching is doing every minute. He didn’t know what he was talking about.”
“Teachers,” wrote McCourt in ’Tis, “are the only professionals who have to respond to a bell every forty-five minutes and come out fighting.”
McCourt is proud of his teaching accomplishments. Several of his students stay in touch, and some have gone on to successful writing careers of their own. Some of the most evocative sections of Teacher Man come from his description of certain classroom “experiments,” like the time he decided to have each student bring in a cookbook and read a recipe as if it were poetry. The class got so inspired they even brought in instruments and performed.
McCourt’s teaching philosophy could be summed up in the phrase, “Don’t bother people.” And it explains his admiration of St. Francis, after whom he was named. “St. Francis was not particularly religious in the traditional sense, he was never ordained as a priest, he just went his own way,” says McCourt. “He didn’t always have approval of the church, but he was a pure saint, completely unselfish. People followed him. He didn’t say, ‘come follow me’ the way Jesus did. They followed him because they found him so attractive. And he didn’t bother people.”
These days, McCourt is finally taking time to enjoy this bang-up second act of his. Until now he’s had no time. Right after Angela’s Ashes was published, he started working on the sequel, ’Tis, which tells of his first decade or so in New York, living in a cold water flat and struggling to become a teacher and then struggling to teach. He wrote that all through the book tour for Angela’s Ashes.
“I wrote it everywhere,” he says. “Planes, trains, buses, sitting on the john, everywhere.”
Then, right after ’Tis was published, McCourt started on Teacher Man. Now he is ready to stop talking about himself, enjoy the book tour with his wife, Ellen, and write about other things. He says, “something is fermenting” in his head, and meanwhile he’d like to rework The Irish and How They Got That Way, the play he wrote last year for the Irish Repertory Theater. And he’s trying his hand at a mass.
McCourt, 75, has had quite a journey, going from dreaming about having his very own egg to eat and not having to share it with his three brothers, to having more money, fame, and free time than he knows what to do with. These days McCourt’s biggest project of the day is to “make the coffee and walk the dog.” And he likes it that way. He also appreciates the fame. Especially because of his television appearances, people come up to him all the time.
“Everywhere I go in the strangest places, people approach me,” says McCourt. “It never gets old. People say such flattering things, such sincere things. It’s very heartening to know that that particular book, Angela’s Ashes, still has a life and that people get so inspired and moved by it.”
Deb Aronson is a freelance writer based in Urbana, Illinois.