Frank McCourt, who died over the weekend at the age of 78, is known to many Americans as the author of the memoir Angela’s Ashes, which has sold 4 million copies, been been translated into 27 languages and was made into a Hollywood film. Yet the Irish-American author was also known to many a class of New York public school students as a teacher of creative writing. Like many aspects of McCourt’s life, his experiences in the classroom were largely defined by the sweep of colorful narrative that brought him there.
McCourt was born to Irish parents in Brooklyn, N.Y., but his family moved back to their homeland during the Depression in search of work. They found little to comfort them back in Limerick, where they lived in extreme poverty, as McCourt described in his memoir. He quit school at age 13 and worked odd jobs, and at age 19, moved back to New York. After serving in the U.S. military, McCourt was determined to put together a career of something more than odd jobs. He talked his way into New York University (which he attended with the help of the GI Bill), and eventually was hired by the city’s public schools as a creative writing teacher—without even having a high school degree. He worked in the schools for 27 years, writing both Angela’s Ashes, and another book, ‘Tis, after his retirement from the system.
In interviews after he became well known, McCourt described his myriad challenges as a new teacher. One hurdle was his having been taught in the strict and stodgy Irish education system of the day, in which, to hear him tell it, students were told to keep their mouths shut, memorize material for the test, and never question anything. Students in New York were more assertive in McCourt’s presence, to say the least. Yet his charges also seemed puzzled and intrigued by his accent and Irish background, and the fact that he hadn’t gone to high school, enough so some of them cut him a break. He later wrote a memoir about his time in the classroom, Teacher Man. (For more information, check out Teacher Magazine’s Web Watch on McCourt.)
Is there a place for people with McCourt’s background in today’s education system? Should there be? In public schools, hirings like his seem entirely doubtful nowadays. Private schools would of course have much more leeway in hiring a writer with an unconventional background, though how far down that road they’d be willing to go, I don’t know.
Photo: Author Frank McCourt gestures during an interview at his apartment in New York, Tuesday, Oct. 18, 2005. In his latest memoir, “Teacher Man,” McCourt shares his memories of being a public school teacher in New York for 30 years. (Mary Altaffer/AP
A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.