Tuesday, July 21, 2009

The headless men all doff their hats

When I wrote the previous post I had a feeling I'd be writing this one soon afterward, but it happened a bit sooner than I expected. If I were in the habit of tagging my blog posts, I'd probably have to label both of these "brushes with fame" or something like that.

It's been very strange to see all the media coverage for the death of Frank McCourt, because I spent three years in his class, probably somewhat longer than most students. He was my English teacher in the sophomore year of high school. The following year, I sat in on his class unofficially while skipping an especially boring math class. (Yes, I cut a class only to attend another class. That's the kind of place Stuyvesant High School was.) In senior year -- while making up the missed math class with a different teacher who was not boring -- I took his writing class. If you add in that one time he was a substitute teacher during my freshman year, Frank McCourt was a constant presence throughout the whole of my high school education.

Going back even further, he was part of the reason I wound up attending that particular high school, despite its reputation as an "elite" math and science school with no emphasis on the humanities. This turned out to be complete nonsense -- shielded from excessive meddling by administrative indifference, the History and English departments at Stuyvesant were up there with the finest in NYC; hobbled by micromanagement and constant pressure on the faculty to produce prizes and awards, the Math and Science departments were a mess -- but I had no way of knowing that in advance. What won me over was getting a copy of the school science fiction magazine, for which McCourt served as faculty advisor. If a New York City public high school had its own student science fiction magazine, that had to be the place for me.

(In fact, that particular issue even had a four page comic strip satirizing McCourt himself, written and drawn by a student named James Fry. James and I didn't get to spend much time together when I got to Stuyvesant, two years behind him, but we became close cronies when we both worked at Marvel Comics a few years later. But I don't remember if I ever told him about seeing that satirical strip or what an impact it had on me...)

If you'd asked me at the time, I'd probably have told you I kept going back to McCourt's classroom because I was going to be a writer, and he was a writer. Even if he was unpublished, he could tell you all you needed to know about being a writer. When I got to be a little less pretentious, I'd have said I kept going back because he was so entertaining: full of darkly humorous tales of his grim boyhood in Limerick, always ready to turn the class into a freewheeling discussion of whatever struck our fancy, never bound by whatever he'd told us we were going to be doing the previous day. But if I'm brutally honest, I always knew the real reason I kept going back to his class year after year was that I'd discovered early on you didn't need to do any work to get by in his class. You could always distract him, or get him talking about something else, or make an excuse, and he'd never push back or make a fuss. I was just incredibly lazy, and that's no reflection on him...but I never thought much of him as a teacher, and to be honest I still don't.

Please understand, this isn't some lingering bitterness speaking; I didn't have some grudge against McCourt that I've been nursing for all these years because he savaged my masterpiece, dashed my hopes and dreams, or anything like that. I don't recall we ever had any problems, and he was as encouraging about my writing as he was for any other student alongside me in his class.

Where McCourt excelled -- and I don't mean this as dismissively as it may sound -- was in playing the role of a writer for his students. For students who wanted to be writers, he was the embodiment of that world, a living gateway to the patrons of the Lion's Head and the White Horse and all the other two-fisted literary hangouts (i.e., bars) of New York. That life was tantalizingly within reach so long as he was in front of us, even if at the time it was almost as notional for him as it was for us.

I wonder how many of his former students were as stunned as I when Angela's Ashes was published? That was sixteen years after I graduated high school and I certainly never expected to see his name on the cover of a book. He and his brother Malachy had written a comical two-man play about their childhood in Limerick and I'd seen them perform it, but I expected that would be as far as things ever went. Surely he was destined to be just another of those sad figures at the bar, talking about the great work they were going to write someday, or would have done if life hadn't got in the way. And then suddenly he was at the White House, more than once, and winning a Pulitzer.

It's very odd when someone you knew as a regular person becomes a celebrity, and then becomes a crazy international mind-blowing celebrity consorting with heads of state and royalty. I've probably had more than my share of experience with this. (Is it normal to have known two people who went on to win Pulitzers for literature? Why, Lord, have you blessed me so?)

Because Frank McCourt's subject was himself, everyone who's read his books feels as if they know him. They don't; they know a version of his life that he rehearsed and refined and pared down for dramatic impact and maximum charm. He did know how to get through bad times on little more than charm...and that's certainly one respect in which I've tried to copy him over the years. He could be sarcastic and disdainful and ungenerous in his opinion of others. But you didn't forget the things he said. I certainly haven't.

Mr. McCourt, I know I left class owing you an essay or two. Sorry this one was so late.


  1. Beautifully said, Richard; your writing is a joy to read. Now if you could just tackle a serious topic...

  2. That's exactly what the Pulitzer board told me when they rejected my entry form.

  3. My only experience with McCourt was at a couple of readings, yet somehow what you wrote resonated...

  4. Very nice, and it was nice meeting you at the Kirby Museum table. I'm John Rand & Lisa's friend. jot@johnozed.com


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