Frank McCourt’s quiet life as a retired schoolteacher was transformed by the thunderous success of his first memoir, Angela’s Ashes (1996), the heart-wrenching yet uplifting story of his beggar-poor childhood in Limerick, Ireland.
The book sold millions of copies worldwide and won the 1997 Pulitzer Prize for biography. In recounting his family’s desperate poverty, McCourt “redeems the pain of his early years with wit and compassion and grace” (New York Times). Wit illuminates McCourt’s subsequent memoirs as well. ‘Tis (1999) and Teacher Man (2005) trace McCourt’s arrival in New York as a penniless young man and his travails and triumphs in high school classrooms. With humor and heart McCourt recounts his twenty-year tenure teaching creative writing at the progressive Stuyvesant High School, after learning classroom survival skills at a tough vocational school. While beguiling defiant students at McKee Technical High School with storytelling and unconventional assignments—including an excuse note from Adam to God—McCourt strove to impart a larger lesson. Writing is less about putting words on paper and more about observing and imagining: “Every moment of your life, you’re writing. Even in your dreams you’re writing.”
In addition to winning the Pulitzer Prize and being made into a major film, Angela’s Ashes was awarded the National Book Critics Circle Award. McCourt lives in Connecticut.
Excerpt from Teacher Man (2005)
In 1974, my third year at Stuyvesant High School, I am invited to be the new Creative Writing instructor. Roger Goodman says, You can do it.
I know nothing about writing or the teaching of it. Roger says don’t worry. Across this country there are hundreds of teachers and professors teaching writing and most have never published a word.
And look at you, says Bill Ince, Roger’s successor. You’ve had pieces published here and there. I tell him a few pieces in the The Village Voice, Newsday and a defunct magazine in Dublin hardly qualifies me to teach writing. It will be common knowledge soon that in the matter of teaching writing I don’t know my arse from my elbow. But I remember a remark of my mother’s: God help us, but sometimes you have to chance your arm.
I can never bring myself to say I teach creative writing or poetry or literature, especially since I am always learning myself. Instead I say I conduct a course, or I run a class.
I have the usual five classes a day, three “regular” English, two Creative Writing. I have a homeroom of thirty-seven students, with the clerical work that entails. Each term I am given a different Building Assignment: patrolling hallways and stairwells; checking boys’ lavatories for smoking; substituting for absent teachers; watching for drug traffic; discouraging high jinks of any kind; supervising student cafeterias; supervising the school lobby to ensure that everyone, coming or going, has an official pass. Where three thousand bright teenagers are gathered under one roof you can’t be too careful. They are always up to something. It’s their job.
Teacher Man (2005)
Angela’s Ashes (1996)