Writing the past: A journey down memoir lane with Frank McCourt | AspenTimes.com

Writing the past: A journey down memoir lane with Frank McCourt

Stewart Oksenhorn
"I was supposed to be teaching, but I was learning. I was learning about my past, about literature, about being Irish," says Frank McCourt of his teaching days, chronicled in the current best-seller "Teacher Man." (Courtesy Aspen Writers' Foundation)

It was agony for Frank McCourt, taking up his pen and trying to put those memories to paper. “Pure misery,” in his words.Interestingly, McCourt was not referring to the writing of “Angela’s Ashes,” the Pulitzer Prize-winning, 1996 memoir of his impoverished childhood in Ireland. Rather, the 75-year-old writer was speaking of the process of writing his latest book, “Teacher Man,” a memoir of his 30-year career in New York City’s public schools. Compared to “Angela’s Ashes,” “Teacher Man” is humorous, lighthearted and optimistic. For the most part, the third of McCourt’s trilogy of memoirs – “‘Tis,” from 1999, focuses on McCourt’s early adulthood in New York and the U.S. Army – depicts McCourt as a stubbornly nonconformist, but dedicated, figure at the head of the classroom. The story ends on an uplifting note; McCourt, who had struggled early on, battling more with administrators than students and getting dismissed from more than one job, finds success at the elite Stuyvesant High School. He lasted some 17 years at Stuyvesant, and was named the school’s Teacher of the Year in 1976.The tale told in “Teacher Man” is far more pleasant than the author’s experience of getting it on the page.”No, I did not enjoy it. It was pure misery,” said McCourt emphatically, speaking from his Connecticut home. “‘Angela’s Ashes’ had more of a unity. ‘Teacher Man,’ I didn’t know what point of view to tell it from, the here and now or the past. I struggled with the tone, the perspective, the style. I was going to give it up altogether.”Had McCourt given up on writing “Teacher Man,” which was published in November, it would have been a most ironic coup de grâce to his pedagogy experience. McCourt’s three decades in the classroom were marked, even more than by his offbeat tactics, by persistence. He drifted around from the aimless teenagers at a vocational school to the wayward attendees of a community college, before finding his niche with the ambitious creative-writing students at Stuyvesant. Between a marriage and a divorce, having a child and failing in an effort to earn a Ph. D., McCourt managed to teach an estimated 33,000 classes and 12,000 students at five schools. “Doggedness,” McCourt writes, is “not as glamorous as ambition or talent or intellect or charm, but still the one thing that got me through the days and nights.”McCourt had more than doggedness to offer. Stemming from his eternal outsider status – as a teacher, he was an Irishman in New York; in his childhood in Ireland, he was a New York-born oddity; and everywhere and always, he was the product of horrific poverty and tragedy – McCourt brought idiosyncratic ways into the classroom. But through his lifelong love of the written word and his determination, those odd measures became inspired.

McCourt used the students’ forged excuse notes as a launching point for creative writing; he figured this was the one area in which the kids already had a natural expertise and enthusiasm. Trying to handle the multiple ethnicities of one of his classes, McCourt pinpoints the topic – food – that anyone can relate to. Soon enough, the students are learning not only writing, but also the culinary arts and even music, through the medium of cooking recipes. Such tactics, which caused great eyebrow-raising among fellow faculty and administrators, made McCourt seem more an ally than the opposition to his students.That sense of camaraderie runs both ways in “Teacher Man.” The memoir reflects the profound appreciation McCourt had for his students. At times, remembering, no doubt, the abuses he suffered at the hands of his own dad, McCourt protects his students both from the outside world and their parents. In his days at McKee Vocational and Technical High School, where the students came from blue-collar families, McCourt would paint glowing pictures of the kids for their parents, rather than risk punishment and worse at home. To McCourt, it was a way of paying back the students for all they gave him. More than once in “Teacher Man,” he makes the point that there is nothing to keep a man honest and sharp five days a week than to stand up before a crowd of big-city teenagers and attempt to control and teach them. “In any classroom, something is always happening,” writes McCourt. “They keep you on your toes. They keep you fresh. You’ll never grow old, but the danger is you might have the mind of an adolescent forever.” McCourt had long been in love with books; one of the great passages and one of the few bright moments in “Angela’s Ashes” is when young Frankie discovers Shakespeare. It happens when he is in the hospital, suffering from a severe case of typhoid fever. As he relates, “If I had a whole book of Shakespeare they could keep me in the hospital for a year.”

“Discovering Shakespeare,” says McCourt now, “was like seeing the face of God. Everyone talked about him as if he was a supreme God – and he was. Finally reading Shakespeare was like entering the secret garden. I didn’t have a fraction of an idea what he was talking about, but it didn’t matter. Sometimes you listen to music and you don’t know what it is, but it’s like magic.”Loving literature, and teaching creative writing for three decades, McCourt often thought about being a writer himself. But, and this is stunning in retrospect, he couldn’t imagine what he would write about.Perhaps what McCourt is most thankful to his students for is giving him the idea to draw on his life story. McCourt thought his past would interest no one. “I had placed no value in my life. It was one of misery,” he said. But every time his history would seep into a classroom lecture, the kids would lap it up.”I went on doling out bits and pieces … my father’s drinking, days in Limerick slums when I dreamed of America, Catholicism, drab days in New York, and I was surprised that New York teenagers asked for more,” he writes.”My high school students started asking me about my life. And they seemed truly interested in my answers,” McCourt told me. “My past began to assemble itself in my head.” In 1994, McCourt began writing “Angela’s Ashes.” He credits his marriage that same year, to his current wife, Ellen, with finally giving him the push to write. Two years later, it made McCourt nearly a folk hero, earning him a Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award. Approaching the material, dredging up that past in such a concrete way, was a frightful proposition. “Revisiting it, you think you might turn into a pillar of salt,” said McCourt. “It’s difficult to deal with your alcoholic father, your mother’s misery, the poverty, the Catholicism.”

McCourt confesses to shedding a tear at least once while writing “Angela’s Ashes.” But there were also moments of humor and relief in the process. And between writing the feel-good “Teacher Man,” with all its technical challenges, and “Angela’s Ashes,” with its emotional heaviness, McCourt chooses the latter.”It was easier, in a way,” he said. “It had been fermenting for a long time in my head. It’s still hard going into all that stuff. But when you grow up in that situation, you accept it. You’re miserable, but you accept it.” McCourt is finished with writing memoirs. (In fact, he may have thought he was finished even before he wrote “Teacher Man”; a note at the end of a paperback edition of “‘Tis” states that McCourt was working on a novel based on his teaching years.)”I don’t want to talk about myself anymore. You get weary of yourself,” he said. In fact, though he would like to write a novel, at the moment, McCourt is writing “not a word. I’m giving myself a break.”

But he is grateful to have put his life, both the miserable and the uplifting, into print. The process has been sometimes painful, sometimes frustrating. But the ultimate award is invaluable self-knowledge.”Becoming aware is the main thing in writing,” he said. “I tell my students, the writer is always saying, ‘What’s going on here?'”And for that gift, the teacher thanks his students.”You go back and say, who was that standing in front of those kids? Who was that guy?” said McCourt. “I was supposed to be teaching, but I was learning. I was learning about my past, about literature, about being Irish. “Aspen Writers’ Foundation Winter Words schedule – Frank McCourt, Saturday at 5:30 p.m. at the Wheeler Opera House; Ann Patchett, Feb. 15, at Given Institute; Lorraine Adams, Feb. 23, Given Institute; Kent Haruf, March 4, Given Institute; James Patterson, March 18, Wheeler Opera House. All Winter Words events begin at 5:30 p.m. For further information, call 925-3122, or visit http://www.aspenwriters.org.Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is stewart@aspentimes.com

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