Writer Frank McCourt, who died Sunday of melanoma at the age of 78, spent decades telling stories to New York City students as an English and creative writing teacher, reports the New York Times. Those stories became Angela’s Ashes on his desperately poor Irish childhood, then ‘Tis and Teacher Man.
Gotham Schools quotes McCourt on his first teaching job at a vocational school on Staten Island. (He was rejected by several schools because of his thick Irish accent.) It was staffed by World War II vets who considered students “the enemy” and young, Dewey-eyed teachers who wanted to meet the students’ “felt needs.”
From his second book, ‘Tis:
They don’t want to read and they don’t want to write. They say, Aw, Mr. McCourt, all these English teachers want us to write about dumb things like our summer vacation or the story of our life. Boring. Every year since our first grade we write the story of our life and teachers just give us a check mark and they say, Very Nice.
In a closet, McCourt found old student compositions going back to 1942.
The boys back then yearned to fight, to avenge the deaths of brothers, friends, neighbors…
… I pile the crumbling papers on my desk and begin reading to my classes. They sit up. There are familiar names. Hey, that was my father. He was wounded in Africa. Hey, that was my Uncle Sal that was killed in Guam.
When I read the essays aloud there are tears. Boys run from the room to the toilets and return red-eyed. Girls weep openly and console one another.
The old essays, written on brittle paper, are about to fall apart. The students agree to copy them by hand.
We are saving the immediate past of immediate families. . . . This is my father when he was fifteen. This is my aunt and she died when she was having a baby.
They are suddenly interested in compositions with the title, My Life, and I want to say, See what you can learn about your fathers and uncles and aunts? Don’t you want to write about your lives for the next generation?
McCourt was a thoughtful, creative, inspiring and original soul, writes NYC Educator.