When I interviewed Pulitzer Prize-winning author Frank McCourt back on Jan. 20, in anticipation of his talk at Purchase (N.Y.) College the following week, he sounded positively vibrant. His incisive remarks on the American education system, memoir writing and the inauguration of President Barack Obama bespoke a man who was still very much passionate about his life and surroundings. My friend, a university instructor and resident of Roxbury — McCourt lived there part-time — mentioned on Facebook that he saw the author six months ago at the supermarket, “and he looked great.”
So I was shocked and saddened when I read in the New York Times yesterday that McCourt had passed away in his Manhattan apartment. According to Malachy McCourt, his younger brother and fellow author, the 78-year-old Brooklyn native had been suffering from meningitis and had recently been treated for metastatic melanoma. He is survived by his wife, Ellen Frey and daughter, Margaret McCourt.
Though I was surprised by his death, I was even more astounded to learn during our interview that McCourt, now considered among the most brilliant writers of the 20th century, was once paralyzed by self-doubt. It was the late ’60s when McCourt graduated from Brooklyn College and he decided to play it safe as he searched for a viable career.
“I didn’t have enough self confidence to say I was a writer,” he said. “I dreaded poverty. I had to find secure employment with a weekly wage. I didn’t see myself working for a corporation.”
So, he turned to teaching.
As a student reared in Ireland’s strict Catholic schools, he had rejected the system’s iron-handed pedagogy and dropped out when he was 13. He took that defiant approach to McKee Technical High School in Staten Island — his first teaching stint — where he engaged his pupils on a personal level. He shared stories about his childhood in the slums of Limerick, Ireland and moving to America and encouraged his students to share their stories as well.
His students may have been wary of those methods at first — McCourt observed they were more concerned with good grades than with actual learning — but eventually, they grew to enjoy his class and of course, his poignant and often hilarious anecdotes.
“And the more I talked about my own life, the more I found it interesting as well,” McCourt recalled. “That’s what made me decide to write.”
More than three decades later, McCourt published “Angela’s Ashes,” a memoir of his childhood. The book garnered international acclaim and spent 117 weeks on The New York Times hardcover best-seller list. McCourt followed with “Tis,” which focuses on his life as a new immigrant in America and “Teacher Man,” which details the challenges of being a fledgling instructor.
It is in the latter publication that McCourt makes his condemnations of the New York City Public School system. During our interview he railed against education policies — including the No Child Left Behind Act — that are “created by bureaucrats but ignore the teacher.” He said little had changed in the years he first began his career:
“The thing was … to keep (the students) quiet. As long as you do that, (the administration) didn’t give a shit. Bureaucrats, politicians talk a good game, but they fled the classroom a long time ago. The further from the classroom you get, the more awards you get. It’s the same old thing. If you’re a good teacher, the (administration) asks, ‘why don’t you take the exam for assistant principal, get an office down the hallway, share a secretary, get your own toilet.’”
But McCourt never took that route. Rather, he opted to remain in the classroom, the ideal context in which to nurture his artistic ambitions and do what he always loved: tell stories.
“There’s this idea that you have to protect yourself,” McCourt said of teaching. “It’s a dangerous thing to open up in the sense of becoming personal. You give a bit about your own life, you get something back from (the students). That’s what education is all about. That’s what life is about.”