Saddened today to learn of the passing of Frank McCourt. While Angela’s Ashes, launched him to fame and won him the Pulitzer Prize, my favourite book of his remains Teacher Man, the account of his life has a high school teacher in the New York city high school system.
I make the weekly drive between Dublin and Limerick, McCourt’s birth place and scene of Angela’s Ashes, each week and I usually have a book on cd in the car with me, to shorten the journey each week. Not so long ago, that book was Teacher Man, and the miles whizzed by, as I listened to McCourt’s wonderful melodic Limerick lilt mixed with a New Yorker’s inflection bring to life those students and classrooms of New York.
Those classrooms were tough places and Frank often lost heart in his teaching ability in those early days. So, I am thrilled to read that his former pupils have been contributing to a New York Times blog dedicated exclusively to remembering the 78-year-old author.
“I still remember the first day of English class, and the only time Mr. McCourt assigned us a book to read for the entire term,” recalls another graduate of McCourt’s, Agatha Ariola. ” ‘You will read, Thomas Wolfe’s You Can’t Go Home Again,’ he had said in a melodic accent that I, a sheltered, first-generation Asian-American, found so refreshing from the harsh Queens accent I often heard on the 45-minute subway commute to Stuyvesant HS.”
As Ariola further recalls, “Class was 40 minutes of storytelling by this wonderfully gifted and engaging author, and I was encouraged to write from my own voice as a child of immigrant parents. Although my creative writing is now mostly kept in my journals for personal reading, Mr. McCourt left me with the legacy and appreciation of family, and the desire to go out into the world and seek the experiences that create memories.”
In terms of his teaching style, McCourt “laughed and sneered, entertained and enthralled me and 30 other kids, says “Diane,” from the class of 1986. “We read You Can’t Go Home Again and My Papa’s Waltz, wrote children’s stories, sang songs and assigned ourselves our own grades (0-100). His writings truly capture the magic of his classroom. He was a good soul and will be missed.”
As another legend, veteran New York newspaper columnist Jimmy Breslin, put it to the Daily News for its Monday editions: “”He never hurt another human being that I know of. This guy was real from the go. And so he’s a real loss to the city because there’s nobody with his backbone to replace him.”
McCourt’s students – and his other fans – will have a chance to pay him tribute at a pubic memorial, being planned for September, says younger brother Malachy McCourt.