Stuyvesant High School’s Room 205, where Frank McCourt held court with teenagers for more than 15 years, was more than a classroom. For those of us lucky enough to take his Creative Writing English class, it was the theater of real life.
Mr. McCourt was the first person who ever suggested that my life was meaningful. Even useful.
“Keep journals,” he instructed each of us. Write what was real, what we experienced, about our brothers, mothers, neighbors, and, of course, one another. “Grist for the mill,” he called our broken hearts, our ethnic food, our subway trip to school, the ancient bearded man living on the subway grate on First Avenue outside the bank.
Frank McCourt held court standing up, or leaning against a front row desk, sports jacket over the back of his chair, an impish smile, eyes full of mischief, his lyrical Irish accent urging us to turn our lives into literature.
“Bare your souls with alacrity!” he admonished us. “Write down all of it. All of it!”
McCourt had his own stories to tell. Although Angela’s Ashes was not published until 1996, when he was 64, I had heard nearly every wrenching, enlightening anecdote in that book more than 20 years earlier, as his student for four terms.
In Teacher Man, Mr. McCourt referred repeatedly to Jonathan Greenberg as the mouthy, mischievous kid who sidetracks his lesson plans with comments like this (page 216): “You can tell me I’m out of order, Mr. McCourt, but did your father ever dance you around the kitchen?”
A handy excuse, Mr. McCourt. I am now older than you were when you taught that class, and after decades as a journalist, I see that you were busting a gut to change the subject from Shakespeare to your father dancing around in the kitchen as he sang ballads and urged you to fight for Ireland.
I saved the hand written stories that I read in room 205 those years, the backs of some of them covered with the red magic marker comments from Mr. McCourt. In 2002, I used those stories to write an essay in the New York Times Education Life, which chronicled my personal journey those two years, from sarcastic wiseass to soul-baring writer.
Frank McCourt described my journey more eloquently in my 1976 High School Yearbook. His inscription said as much about his magic as a teacher as it said about me.
“You never know in this business what effect you have on the young. And it is so bloody satisfying to feel in your bowels that one has benefited. I am particularly joyful the way you’ve developed from defiance to depth, and I’ll never forget how your honestly moved me and everybody else. Hail & Farewell.”
At a time when ego was all I knew, Frank McCourt taught me to express my feelings, my experiences, my opinions. And so began my life as a writer.
In the year leading up to George Bush’s 2004 re-election race, I wrote a novel called, Amerce 2014: An Orwellian Tale. Set in the renamed “God’s United States” during George Bush’s fourth term, the book imagined a totalitarian nation in which Bush and Cheney ruled without restraint. Buzzflash reviewed the book and said it was “destined to become an underground classic,” but mainstream media publications treated the book as though its covers were plutonium.
Frank McCourt read the early chapters and wrote a blurb that said, “This is a hell of a story, deftly-written, with a wacky, delicious sense of humor…a clever and imaginative understatement of the crazy world in which we now live.”
While many reporters and celebrities cowered in fear over making public any moral criticism of Bush and Cheney’s reign , Pulitzer Prize winning author Frank McCourt allowed his name to be used on the cover of my incendiary, small press book, calling it an “understatement.”
I admit, it was not me, but Frank McCourt who had a wacky, delicious sense of humor. Anyone who read Angela’s Ashes knows that.
Those of us lucky enough to have been there in Class 205 knew something else about Mr. McCourt. That by opening his heart to us, his students, he showed us how to open our hearts.
Hail and Farewell, Mr. McCourt, father to my expression.