Frank McCourt the Teacher

By Rebecca Kern — July 21, 2009 1 min read
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Frank McCourt, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Angela’s Ashes who recently passed away, would always admit that his 30 years as a teacher were what made him a strong writer, The New York Times reported.

In his third memoir Teacher Man, he wrote about teaching in New York City’s public schools: “Instead of teaching, I told stories. ... They thought I was teaching. I thought I was teaching. I was learning.”

McCourt first taught in 1958, at age 28, at Ralph R. McKee Vocational High School in Staten Island and then taught from 1972 to 1987 at Manhattan’s selective Stuyvesant High School. His teaching technique was based on telling stories as he said that literature was nothing more than storytelling.

McCourt became known at Stuyvesant as the go-to guy for writing. “If you were at the school and you wanted to write, you went to meet McCourt,” said author David Lipsky. “It wasn’t ‘get a computer.’ It wasn’t ‘go read the complete works of J. D. Salinger.’ It was one word: McCourt.”

McCourt’s storytelling and writing instruction seemed to rub off on his students as many became writers.

“We all thought, ‘He’s such a genius, what’s he doing just teaching us?’” said Susan Jane Gilman, a former student who has published two memoirs. “Everybody thought he was destined for bigger and better things. And when he became a global phenomenon, we felt it was justice.”

Update July 30, 2009: Sports writer Peter King makes space in this weekly NFL news column to share a reader’s reflection on being a student in McCourt’s class.

Photo by Mary Altaffer/AP-File

A version of this news article first appeared in the Web Watch blog.