I was lucky enough to be one of Frank McCourt’s students at New York City’s Stuyvesant High School back in the late 70s.
We loved him. I think it was because he was a good teacher. But it might just as easily have been because of his Irish accent or the fact that we got to write what we wanted to in his class. Or because he spent class time telling us amusing stories.
According to his obit in the Times:
Mr. McCourt, who taught in the city’s school system for nearly 30 years, had always told his writing students that they were their own best material.
I don’t recall him saying that to us. But if he didn’t, he should have.
Who knew that Mr. McCourt had Angela’s Ashes within him? His last year at Stuyvesant, I was writing for an “underground” newspaper – not school sanctioned – started by my friend Mike, whose parents he maintained were blackballed as communists during the McCarthy era and who knew Mr. McCourt from the local pub, the Lion’s Head. Our paper was aptly titled “Apathy” – the perfect angsty name for an underground high school newspaper. Since we all loved Mr. McCourt, we decided to interview him. A farewell piece. I still have a copy, buried somewhere among my papers. In it Mr. McCourt tells us that he’s leaving teaching to pursue his dream of being a published author. He’s working on a novel, he says. Called Brownstone Blues.
I remember exactly where I was when Mr. McCourt reentered my consciousness. I was working as a teacher in my own classroom late one evening, probably getting ready for the next day’s onslaught, when I heard a familiar voice come from the radio. I was listening to Fresh Air and Terry Gross was interviewing someone about the publication of a memoir that detailed his wretched Irish childhood. The lilting voice was unmistakable. I couldn’t believe it. Angela’s Ashes? What was that? The questions I wanted Terry Gross to ask were: What had Mr. McCourt been doing all these years since I last saw him? What happened to Brownstone Blues? Did he ever think about Stuyvesant and his students there? Did he remember Apathy?
Needless to say, these questions were not in Terry Gross’ reporter’s notebook.
Over the next year, I watched in amazement as the book became a subsequent smash hit and spawned the McCourt Franchise. I meant always to attend a reading and speak with him, send Mr. McCourt a photocopy of the Apathy article to jog his memory, a reminder of how much we adored him. But I never got around to it. To my everlasting regret.