Frank McCourt: Those Who Can, Teach

Frank McCourt: Those Who Can, Teach

I refused to settle for a one-act existence.
~Frank McCourt

I spent one summer in a derelict farmhouse in Co. Tipperary. My bed frame had collapsed, but the mattress was firm enough for the floor. I unrolled a sleeping bag on top.

At night, I listened to rain and wind and things that skittered across the roof and hoped they were leaves or loose shingles.

In the morning, I ate porridge left on the stove for days. On the weekend, my housemate and I heated water in the tea kettle and washed our hair on the stoop, one lathering while the other poured.

We had to walk six miles to buy groceries, so dinner was usually an omelet. Eggs could be had from the local post office and a nearby farmer brought us milk from his cows. I broke out in hives from the limited diet, so we borrowed a wobbly bike and took turns riding to town for supplies.

We were archaeologists “roughing it” to dig for knowledge. It was 1994 and I thought I’d caught a glimpse of Ireland’s romantic past.

Two years later Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt (1930-2009) won the Pulitzer Prize.

Frank McCourt: Those Who Can, Teach at
Home sweet hovel, Co. Tipperary, 1994. Yes, the barn at right is about to fall down.

The book famously starts:

When I look back on my childhood I wonder how I survived at all. It was, of course, a miserable childhood: the happy childhood is hardly worth your while. Worse than the ordinary miserable childhood is the miserable Irish childhood, and worse yet is the miserable Irish Catholic childhood.

It obliterated my romantic ideas.

Frank McCourt was actually born in Brooklyn, along with his siblings Malachy, twins Oliver and Eugene, and baby Margaret. Malachy Sr. drank incessantly and squandered what little he made on alcohol. Little Margaret died at age two months.

“My father went on a lifelong tear,” Malachy Jr. later explained. The family returned to Ireland and settled in Limerick, Angela’s home town.

There, between the Great Depression and Malachy Sr.’s alcoholism, they sank into squalor.

The whole family slept in the same bug-ridden bed and shared a stinking privy with their neighbors. The twins died from privation. Within a few years, Angela gave birth to two more boys, Michael and Alphonsus.

Malachy Sr. headed for England’s factories when World War II started. That was pretty much the last anyone saw of him.

Angela soldiered on, begging from the curb to support the family. Frank left school at age 13 to help her, doing odd jobs and sometimes stealing.

He eventually found work delivering telegrams, which brought him to the attention of the local moneylender. She hired him to write and deliver threatening collection notices.

At age 19, with the wages he saved, Frank returned to Brooklyn.

He moved from one rooming-house to the other, worked as a janitor and bellhop at the Biltmore Hotel, and mailed money back to Limerick.

Frank McCourt: Those Who Can, Teach by Debra Eve | LaterBloomer.comMcCourt the Teacher

Frank credits Chairman Mao with changing his aimless direction. He enlisted in the U.S. Army during the Korean War and spent two years in Germany training dogs (a job he said later prepared him for teaching high school). He returned to Brooklyn eligible for the GI bill.

His tuition would be paid, but he had only eight years formal education. He talked his way into New York University by demonstrating the depth of his reading. Some find that amazing, but I’m not surprised that a bright boy, looking to escape his circumstances, found solace in books.

Frank graduated with a degree in Literature and a teaching credential. He taught English and creative writing in New York high schools for 27 years.

With his gentle brogue, his passion for literature, and his flair for showmanship, Frank became an inspirational teacher, akin to Robin Williams’ character in Dead Poet’s Society.

One story about his early days at the elite Stuyvesant School goes like this:

A privileged charge threw a tantrum and his sandwich at McCourt. Frank picked the sandwich off the floor and ate it with great relish. His students watched, shocked. He didn’t have much trouble with them afterward.

McCourt the Writer

Although Frank excelled at teaching, something else clamored inside him. “All along, I wanted to do this book badly. I would have to do it, or I would have died howling.”

He attempted a version of Angela’s Ashes in 1969, but threw it out.

I was imitating everybody. O’Casey and Joyce and Henry were in and Evelyn Waugh—imagine me writing like Evelyn Waugh. I tried to be smart-ass, upper-class British writer.

Frank finally discovered his voice in retirement—with the help of his granddaughter.

I had this extraordinary illumination…Children are almost deadly in their detachment from the world…They are absolutely pragmatic, and they tell the truth, and somehow that lodged in my subconscious when I started writing the book.

Told in present tense from a child’s viewpoint, Angela’s Ashes is at once devastating and full of compassion. McCourt admits he released a lifetime of anger to finish it. But in the end, the book is a testament to hope:

You might be poor, your shoes might be broken, but your mind is a palace. (Click to tweet this.)

Frank McCourt: Those Who Can, Teach by Debra Eve | LaterBloomer.comAngela’s Ashes came out in 1996 when Frank was 66. Ironically, the ’90s brought unprecedented prosperity to Ireland, and the poverty of the ’30s and ’40s was all but forgotten.

Irish dairy farmers benefited from membership in the European Community. They built big modern houses and let the old ones, like my temporary home, fall to ruin. The boom known as “The Celtic Tiger” began in earnest. It tanked in 2008 with the world financial crisis.Frank McCourt passed away in 2009, after publishing two more memoirs and a children’s book. His writing career lasted only half as long as his teaching career, but he didn’t go out howling.

He understood how those years teaching incubated his stories. He was fond of saying:

George Bernard Shaw said those that can do, and those that can’t teach. Just goes to show that Shaw didn’t know his arse from his elbow about teaching.



24 Responses

  1. Anne R. Allen
    | Reply

    What a great post! And a fantastic writer. If anybody wants a lesson in “voice” reading a little McCourt will do nicely. Thanks for the inspiration.

    • Debra Eve

      Thanks, Anne. It is astonishing how McCourt told such a difficult story with so much humor and affection. As Florence said, that only comes with maturity 🙂

  2. Lindsay
    | Reply

    You are a fine storyteller yourself! I read this blog with rapt attention.

    • Debra Eve

      Thanks, Lindsay. That’s a great compliment coming from one of the best storytellers I know 🙂

  3. florence fois
    | Reply

    Debra, one of those great writers whose time waited for the vintage years of retirement. Some might say, what he might have done had he begun earlier. I do not agree. The fruits ripen in their own time and give us all noursishment 🙂 Thanks so much for this !

    • Debra Eve

      McCourt himself admits he couldn’t have written Angela’s Ashes early, mostly because he had to let go of his bitterness first. THAT takes years. I’m with you, Florence!

  4. Jennette Marie Powell
    | Reply

    What a wonderful story of strength and determination! And yes, it’s true that those who can’t do, sometimes teach, there are many who can do, and couldn’t teach no matter how much they try.

    • Debra Eve

      Yup, I’ve experienced those brilliant individuals who bored me into napping at my desk. I think storytelling hangs McCourt’s brilliant teaching and brilliant writing together. Thanks for stopping by, Jennette!

  5. Madeleine Kolb
    | Reply

    I read Angela’s Ashes some years ago and was by the first paragraph. The book is terribly bleak is some ways and so inspiring in others. I love that he didn’t lose his sense of humor, nicely illustrated by the line about his experience training dogs during the Korean War being good training for later teaching high school.

    Great job!

    • Debra Eve

      So true, Madeleine. It was a bleak tale, but somehow McCourt saw through the bleakness to the humanity. I believe him when he said he had to do a lot of anger management before getting there. Thanks for the comment!

  6. David Stevens
    | Reply

    Sometimes it takes a while for the words to be expressed in such a way that others can fully appreciate them. Later bloomers are like maturing wine and good for them…thanks for sharing another terrific story Debra
    be good to yourself

    • Debra Eve

      I like that “maturing wine” analogy, David 🙂

  7. Chris Edgar
    | Reply

    I like what Frank said about going through a phase of wanting to imitate famous authors, and perhaps feeling frustrated by his inability to speak with their voice — I know I experience this when I’m writing music as well. One interesting thing I’ve found is that, even if I consciously try to imitate another composer, there will inevitably be something unique and distinctive about what I produce.

    • Debra Eve

      I agree 100%, Chris. I actually find that imitation can be the best teacher at times and perhaps Frank had to go through that stage to find his voice. Thanks for the observation!

  8. Samantha Stacia
    | Reply

    I just LOVE your website and think you do such a wonderful and professional job with all your posts and all of it! This as usual was a great story! I love that I was able to tweet that great quote too!

    • Debra Eve

      It’s people like you who keep me going, Samantha! Thanks so much.

  9. Lynette M. Burrows
    | Reply

    Wow. Very well written post, Debra! McCourt is fascinating. Thanks.

    • Debra Eve

      Thanks so much, Lynette! I do love my job 🙂

  10. Jennifer Jensen (@jenjensen2)
    | Reply

    I loved Angela’s Ashes, and after spending 2-1/2 years in County Cork, I really ought to go read it again. I haven’t read Teacher Man, but it’s going on my TBR list.

    I really enjoyed some of the other things you brought out about McCourt, about the dogs, how he couldn’t have written this earlier, and his comments about the “those who can do” quote. Priceless!

    • Debra Eve

      Thanks, Jennifer. How exciting that you lived in Co. Cork! I’d love to visit again. McCourt certainly had the gift for storytelling and one-liners.

  11. Karen McFarland
    | Reply

    Thank you Debra for reminding us about Frank McCourt. Sadly, I had forgotten about him. Ah, the Irish have such history, don’t they. I traveled through Ireland during the same time period that Mr. McCourt released Angela’s Ashes. It was towards the end of the 1990’s and yes, there was quite a boom, as was mostly everywhere actually. We stayed a couple of days in the Limerick area. Well, what’s not to love about Ireland. But it’s sad that after such of long history of poverty, they had finally had achieved a financial reversal, then to have it come tumbling down upon them again. Yet, the Irish are known to tell a fine tale and that Frank McCourt did. I think they made this story into a movie also, if I’m not mistaken.

    I love reading your posts Debra. I hope you will consider hopping over to my place and post someday. 🙂

    • Debra Eve

      Wow, thanks for the invite, Karen! I’m so honored and definitely want to do it. The Irish are known for triumphing through hardship and I’m sure they’ll ride out this latest economic downturn. They did make it into a movie, but it lost some of the compassion and was a bit more of a downer, IMO. Thanks for stopping by.

  12. Jan
    | Reply

    Malachi McCourt is also a great writer.
    Treat yourself to “A Monk Swimming”

    • Debra Eve | @DebraEve

      Thank you for the recommendation, Jan. I will definitely read “A Monk Swimming” and profile Malachi at some point!

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