'Teacher Man' brings McCourt full circle

By PAUL GRONDAHL, Staff Writer
First published: Sunday, January 22, 2006

Frank McCourt spent 27 years teaching English in New York City public high schools, plagued by self-doubt.

"I always went home at night clawing myself with despair, wondering what the hell I'd accomplished," McCourt said.

He spoke by phone from a hotel room in Fort Worth, Texas, the latest stop in a long promotional tour that will carry him to New Zealand and Australia in support of "Teacher Man," the third installment in a trilogy of memoir. Before taking off for distant locales, he'll be in Albany on Tuesday to kick off the New York State Writers Institute Spring 2006 Visiting Writers Series at the University at Albany.

The conversation seemed like ancient history as McCourt, 75, recalled a time before he became a literary phenom at age 66. That was when his first book, "Angela's Ashes," won a Pulitzer Prize, sold millions of copies, was published in many foreign editions, became a major motion picture and launched a platinum brand name for his publisher, Scribner.

Before there was a internationally best-selling writer, there was a lowly teacher.

McCourt taught writing for a decade at McKee Vocational High School and 17 years at Stuyvesant High in Manhattan before retiring in 1995.

"Teaching was the longest gig of my life," McCourt said. "And there's nothing harder than teaching."

Except, perhaps, writing about it.

When he went to put down on paper his recollections -- after describing teaching briefly in " 'Tis," a follow-up to his acclaimed account of a wretchedly poor Irish upbringing in the slums of Limerick -- McCourt felt uncharacteristically blocked.

"The first two books came fairly easily, but I had such a hard time with this one, and I struggled with it for five years," McCourt said of "Teacher Man."

"At one point, I was going to abandon it, give back the advance and retire happily to the south of France and watch topless beauties pass by," he said.

McCourt soldiered on, though, convinced he had a story to tell that could both entertain and raise larger questions about the state of secondary education in America.

"There's a paucity of writing about teaching and all the movies and TV series are (expletive)," McCourt said. "I wanted to open up the world of high school and to get into the day-to-day reality of teaching."

The book describes how teaching offered an opportunity for a young Irish immigrant who had settled for menial jobs cleaning a hotel and lugging ship cargo on the docks. It was also a refuge for a voracious reader and self-made intellectual, a poor kid who never managed to attend high school himself.

What McCourt didn't want to write was a long, tedious treatise on educational deficiencies or a dry, creaky remembrance of classes past.

At the end of the day, "Teacher Man" is a love letter to that anonymous army, unsung heroes in the trenches of the country's ongoing battle over how to educate its youth.

McCourt's signature lyricism, dark humor and witty anecdotes are evident throughout. He kicks it off with a funny story about his first day in the gritty classroom on Staten Island, where two thugs were fighting over a bologna sandwich, which ended up flying through the air and plopping onto McCourt's desk.
They hadn't covered flying bologna sandwiches in his teacher's training courses at New York University.

It was 9 o'clock in the morning, but McCourt impulsively grabbed the sandwich from his desk, paused as the surly and tough kids watched, and proceeded to eat the sandwich.

The bologna sandwich-eating incident broke the tension, gave McCourt street credibility among his voc-tech students, and laid the groundwork for future unorthodox methods.

Later, while teaching at Stuyvesant High -- perhaps the most prestigious public high school in New York City -- he nurtured a sense of community among his brilliant, high-achieving, multiethnic pupils by organizing potluck picnics that drew gefilte fish, kimchi, risotto and other world cuisine.

It was his Stuyvesant students who nagged their teacher, who had assigned them to write family history narratives, to convert his hilarious classroom recollections into a written McCourt memoir.

After shrugging off his Stuyvesant students' entreaties for years, McCourt disciplined himself enough to write it down. The result was "Angela's Ashes."

The story comes full circle in "Teacher Man." When the book was published last November, officials at Stuyvesant High organized a party.

Dozens of McCourt's former students came from across the U.S. and as far away as Switzerland. They had come to say thank you to a teacher who had inspired them. Many more wrote heartfelt letters to the editor after a New York Times article about the Stuyvesant event appeared.

McCourt, who always worried if he was making a difference as a teacher, had his answer.

"Teaching isn't clear cut like being a doctor, where you operate and the patient gets better or worse. Or a lawyer, where you win or lose the case," McCourt said. "As a teacher, you just do your best, keep poking away at it and hope."

Paul Grondahl can be reached at 454-5623 or by e-mail at [email protected].

Capital city made quite an impression

"Angela's Ashes" ends in Albany, where 19-year-old Frank McCourt landed in 1949 after boarding a freighter in Cork, Ireland.

When McCourt visits the University at Albany on Jan. 24 for a Writers Institute event, sweet memories will come flooding back.

On that October day 56 years ago, McCourt made his way from the Port of Albany over to Broadway and Union Station to catch a train to New York City. He bought a cup of coffee and a piece of pie in the train station.

"I remember the coffee came in a big, thick white porcelain cup and I was amazed at how thick it was," McCourt recalled. "I had the first piece of lemon meringue pie in my life. The pie sent me into heaven. I thought: If this is what life is like in Albany, how much better can it get in New York?"
Only recently did a letter from a reader, a retired sailor in the Irish merchant marine, shed light on a brief stop McCourt's freighter made at Poughkeepsie, which is briefly mentioned in "Angela's Ashes."
McCourt learned that tickets for the Irish Sweepstakes, a lottery banned in the United States in 1949, were routinely smuggled into this country aboard cargo ships loaded in Ireland. Poughkeepsie allegedly was a well-known drop for the illicit sweepstakes tickets.

"This reader was very knowledgeable and speculated that I was used as a decoy to go ashore in Poughkeepsie to see if any police or federal agents were waiting before the Irish Sweepstakes tickets were smuggled ashore," McCourt said.

Another reader sent McCourt a manifest of the freighter he sailed from Cork, complete with a list of crew and passengers.

"He sent me the material and said he had taken on this research in order to prove me a liar, but there was my name and my story checked out," McCourt said.

This led McCourt to reflect on the controversy dogging author James Frey and his bestselling memoir, "A Million Little Pieces." After an investigative Web site, The Smoking Gun, challenged its veracity, Frey admitted that he had embellished portions.

"I'm always quoting Gore Vidal and his memoir, 'Palimpsest,' " McCourt said. "Vidal said a memoir is an impression of your life, but even if you say it's just your impression you can't put in things that didn't happen. You can put in impressions about how you felt about things that happened. You can't put in made-up events. These things are easily verifiable."

McCourt said his wife, Ellen, is about halfway through Frey's book and he doesn't expect the author's recent revelations will cause her to abandon it.

McCourt never planned to read "A Million Little Pieces."

"I don't like stories of redemption," he said. "It pisses me off when someone boozes it up, drugs it up, writes a book about it and gets rewarded."

-- Paul Grondahl

All Times Union materials copyright 1996-2003, Capital Newspapers Division of The Hearst Corporation, Albany, N.Y.

Frank McCourt