Goodbye, Mr. McCourt

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I never met Frank McCourt, who died at age 78 on July 19. But in reading the obituaries, I came to feel I knew him in a way that one teacher knows another.

The space accorded Mr. McCourt’s death was based, of course, on the fame he developed as the author of the wildly successful Angela’s Ashes that was published by Scribner in 1996. It went on to become No. 1 on best-seller lists for more than two years, and it earned him a Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award.=para

But it was his work in the classroom that resonated for me. Mr. McCourt’s account of his 30-year career in the New York City school system, captured so poignantly in Teacher Man in 2005, recounted experiences that are common to many teachers. While none will likely go on to enjoy his stature, they are part of the same profession.

It’s how Mr. McCourt managed to leave an indelible imprint on the lives of his students at both McKee Vocational High School on Staten Island and at Stuyvesant High School in Manhattan that constitutes, in my opinion, his greatest contribution. Yes, he was a gifted author who appealed to readers through his remarkable storytelling skill, but his real legacy was his influence on his students.

People who have never taught in public schools will find this assessment hard to understand. But that’s because they don’t appreciate what it takes to hold the attention and gain the respect of students. To them, the books Mr. McCourt wrote and the recognition they received just seem more noteworthy.

The closest most people come to being in the classroom of someone like Mr. McCourt’s is vicariously though movies. For example, there are the the portrayals of Jaime Escalante's seemingly impossible victories with his students in East Los Angeles in "Stand and Deliver" or Pat Conroy's achievements with his all black students on an island of the Coast of South Carolina in "Conrack."

These are teachers who make headlines. Yet what they accomplish is quietly repeated time and again by teachers working under similar conditions. It’s just that we rarely hear about them. Teaching is not for those who seek fame and fortune. It’s a profession for those who prefer their payoff from the inner satisfaction they derive working with their students.

I’ll bet the students McCourt taught understand that. They’ll remember Mr. McCourt long after Angela’s Ashes, Tis, and Teacher Man are but vague memories. In fact, on July 22, the New York Times published three letters to the editor from his students recalling in such vivid detail his classes so many years later that readers would have thought they were still enrolled. One former student captured Mr. McCourt’s effectiveness movingly by writing that “his unit on Chaucer was spectacular, and the memories of it make me smile even now.”

That’s why it seems odd that what was missing in the numerous obituaries was the observation made by Henry Adams in 1907 in The Education of Henry Adams: “A teacher affects eternity; he can never tell where his influence stops.”

I think that Mr. McCourt would have liked to be remembered that way more than anyway else. After all, he was the quintessential teacher.

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