The Inspiring Story of How Frank McCourt Won a Pulitzer
From his students, the teacher learned his lessons slowly but well.
Frank McCourt sat on a stage in New York City’s Lincoln Center, his white hair glistening under the lights overhead. He was still boyish of expression at 66, and smile lines radiated from hazel eyes bright with inquisitiveness. Soon he would be addressing the 1997 graduating class of Stuyvesant High School, where he had taught English for 18 years.
He let his mind wander as he gazed out at the great hall. I’ve learned so much from kids like these, he thought. They gave me much more than I gave them.
Frank McCourt was born into poverty in Brooklyn, New York, in 1930. When he was four, his parents, Malachy and Angela, retreated with their children to their native Ireland in search of better times. But a poor economy and Malachy’s alcoholism doomed them to an even worse existence. Young Frank watched three of his siblings die in infancy. The four surviving brothers grew up hungry and ragged in the city of Limerick.
Frank’s father eventually abandoned the family, leaving them dependent on the dole and charity. Hunger was ever-present for Frank, who one day felt so starved that he licked grease from a piece of newspaper someone had used to wrap fish and chips. The first time in his childhood he experienced daily baths, clean sheets, and three meals a day was when he was hospitalized with typhoid fever.
At school, one teacher saw his potential and gave him a hint of a better life when he praised the 11-year-old’s work in class one day. But Frank had to quit at age 14 to help support his family. Still, he read whatever books he could borrow, often sitting under a street lamp at night because the McCourts had no electricity.
Five years later, in 1949, he scraped together enough money to buy pas sage back to America. He was so ashamed of his past that he reinvented it upon occasion, furnishing himself with a father who held the loftiest position imaginable in Limerick: postman.
“Yo, teach!” a voice boomed. Frank McCourt scanned the adolescents in his classroom. It was the fall of 1970 and his first week of teaching at Seward Park High School, which sat in the midst of dilapidated tenement buildings on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. McCourt located the speaker and nodded. “You talk funny,” the student said. “Where ya from?”
“Ireland,” McCourt replied. With more than ten years of teaching experience under his belt, this kind of interrogation no longer surprised him. But one question in particular still made him squirm: “Where’d you go to high school?” someone else asked.
If I tell them the truth, they’ll feel superior to me, McCourt thought. They’ll throw it in my face. Most of all, he feared an accusation he’d heard before—from himself: You come from nothing, so you are nothing.
But McCourt’s heart whispered another possibility: Maybe these kids are yearning for a way of figuring out this new teacher. Am I willing to risk being humiliated in the classroom to find out?
“Come on, tell us! Where’d you go to high school?”
“I never did,” McCourt replied.
“Did you get thrown out?”
I was right, the teacher thought. They’re curious. McCourt explained he’d left school after the eighth grade to take a job.
“How’d you get to be a teacher, then?” they asked.
“When I came to America,” he began, “I dreamed bigger dreams. I loved reading and writing, and teaching was the most exalted profession I could imagine. I was unloading sides of beef down on the docks when I decided enough was enough. By then I’d done a lot of reading on my own, so I persuaded New York University to enroll me.”
McCourt wasn’t surprised that this story fascinated his students. Theirs wasn’t the kind of poverty McCourt had known; they had electricity and food. But he recognized the telltale signs of need in some of his students’ threadbare clothes, and sensed the bitter shame and hopelessness he knew all too well. If recounting his own experiences would jolt these kids out of their defeatism so he could teach them something, that’s what he would do.
A born storyteller, McCourt drew from a repertoire of accounts about his youth. His students would listen, spellbound by the gritty details, drawn by something more powerful than curiosity. He’d look from face to face, recognizing a bit of himself in each sober gaze.
Since humor had been the McCourts’ weapon against life’s miseries in Limerick, he used it to describe those days. “Dinner usually was bread and tea,” he told the students. “Mam used to say, ‘We’ve got our balanced diet: a solid and a liquid. What more could we want?'”
The students roared with laughter.
He realized that his honesty was helping forge a link with kids who normally regarded teachers as adversaries. At the same time, the more he talked about his past, the better he understood how it affected him.
One day McCourt lugged a tape recorder to class. “We’re going to work on writing. Each of you will tell a story into this,” he announced. McCourt then transcribed the stories. One boy described the time he was climbing down a fire escape past an open window when an awful smell hit him. “There was a body in the bed,” McCourt typed. “The corpse was all juicy and swollen.”
McCourt handed back the essay the next day. “See? You’re a writer!”
“I was just talking,” the boy protested. “I didn’t write this.”
“Yes, you did. These words came out of your head. They helped me understand something that was important to you. That’s what writing’s about. Now, learn to do it on paper.” The boy’s shoulders squared with pride.
The incident reminded McCourt of something that had happened at college. A creative-writing professor had asked him to describe an object from his childhood. McCourt chose the decrepit bed he and his brothers had shared. He wrote of their being scratched by the stiff stuffing protruding from the mattress and of ending up jumbled together in the sagging center with fleas leaping all over their bodies. The professor gave McCourt an A, and asked him to read the essay to the class.
“No!” McCourt said, recoiling at the thought. But for the first time, he began to see his sordid childhood, with all the miseries, betrayals and longings that tormented him still, as a worthy topic. Maybe that’s what I was born to put on the page, he thought.
While teaching, McCourt wrote occasional articles for newspapers and magazines. But his major effort, a memoir of 150 pages that he churned out in 1966, remained unfinished. Now he leafed through his students’ transcribed essays. They lacked polish, but somehow they worked in a way his writing didn’t. I’m trying to teach these kids to write, he thought, yet I haven’t found the secret myself.
The bell rang in the faculty lounge at Stuyvesant High School in Manhattan. When McCourt began teaching at the prestigious public high school in 1972, he joked that he’d finally made it to paradise. Some 13,000 students sought admission each year, competing for approximately 700 vacancies. Part of the fun of working with these bright students was keeping them a few degrees off-balance. McCourt asked at the beginning of a creative-writing class, “What did you have for dinner last night?” The students stared at him as if he’d lost his wits.
“Why am I asking this? Because you need to become good observers of detail if you’re going to write well.” As answers trickled in, McCourt countered with more questions. “Where did you eat?” “Who else was there?” “Who cleaned up afterward?”
Student after student revealed families fragmented by divorce and loneliness. “We always argue at the table.” “We don’t eat together.” As he listened, McCourt mentally catalogued the differences and similarities between his early life and theirs. He began to appreciate more the companionship that enriched the meager meals his mother had struggled to put on the table.
That night McCourt lay awake in bed, harvesting the bounty of his chronic insomnia. He visualized himself standing on a street in Limerick, and took an imaginary walk about. He looked at shops and pubs, noting their names, and peered through their windows. He read street signs and recognized people walking past. Oblivious to time, he wandered the Limerick of his mind, collecting the details of scenery and a cast for the book that festered inside him.
Yet when he later picked up a notebook and tried to set down the previous night’s travels, he stopped. McCourt knew that he was still holding back. Before, he had done it out of respect for his mother, who would have been mortified to see the darkest and most searing episodes of his childhood in print. But she had died in 1981, and with her had died his excuse.
At least the bits and pieces that bubbled into his consciousness enlivened the stories he told in class. “Everyone has a story to tell,” he said. “Write about what you know with conviction, from the heart. Dig deep,” he urged. “Find your own voice and dance your own dance!”
On Fridays the students read their compositions aloud. To draw them out, McCourt would read excerpts from his duffel bag full of notebooks. “You had such an interesting childhood, Mr. McCourt,” they said. “Why don’t you write a book?” They threw his own words back at him: “It sounds like there’s more to that story; dig deeper…”
McCourt was past 50 and painfully aware of the passage of time. But despite his growing frustration at his unfinished book, he never tired of his students’ work.
Over the years some talented writers passed through McCourt’s popular classes. Laurie Gwen Shapiro, whose first novel will be published in the spring, was one of them. He decided she was coasting along on her technical skills. “You’re capable of much more,” McCourt told her. “Try writing something that’s meaningful to you for a change.”
Near the end of the semester, McCourt laid an essay—graded 100—on Laurie’s desk. “If Laurie is willing to read her essay,” he announced to the class, “I think we’ll all benefit.”
Laurie began to read a portrait of love clouded by anger and shame. She told of her father, partially paralyzed, and of resenting his inability to play with her or help her ride a bicycle. The paper shook in her trembling hands, and McCourt understood all too well what it cost her to continue. She also admitted she was embarrassed by her father’s limp. The words, McCourt knew, were torn straight from her soul.
When Laurie finished, with tears streaming down her face, the students broke into applause. McCourt looked around the room, his own vision blurred.
These young people have been giving you lessons in courage, he thought. When will you dare as mightily as they?
It was October 1994. Frank McCourt, now retired, sat down and read his book’s new opening, which he had written a few days before and still found satisfying. But many blank pages lay before him. What if I never get it right? he wondered grimly.
He stared at the logs glowing in the fireplace and could almost hear students’ voices from years past, some angry, some defeated, others confused and seeking guidance. “It’s no good, Mr. McCourt. I don’t have what it takes.”
Then Frank McCourt, author, heard the steadying tones of Frank McCourt, teacher: Of course you do. Dig deeper. Find your own voice and dance your own dance.
He scribbled a few lines. “I’m in a playground on Classon Avenue in Brooklyn with my brother Malachy. He’s two, I’m three. We’re on the seesaw.” In the innocent voice of an unprotected child who could neither comprehend nor control the world around him, Frank McCourt told his tale of poverty and abandonment.
In September 1996 Angela’s Ashes hit bookstores. Within weeks McCourt received an excited call from his agent: his book was getting warm reviews and selling at an unbelievable rate. The most surprising call came on April 7, 1997, when McCourt learned that Angela’s Ashes had received America’s most coveted literary award: the Pulitzer Prize.
McCourt laid his hands on the lectern, finishing his commencement address at Lincoln Center. “Early in my teaching days, the kids asked me the meaning of a poem,” he said. “I replied, ‘I don’t know any more than you do. I have ideas. What are your ideas?’ I realized then that we’re all in the same boat. What does anybody know?
“So when you go forth tonight, fellow students—for I’m still one of you—remember that you know nothing! Be excited that your whole life is before you for learning.”
As he gave them a crooked smile, the students leapt to their feet, waving and whistling. This is too much, he thought, started by the intensity of their response. During months of speeches and book signings, he had received many accolades. But this—this left him fighting back tears. It’s the culmination of everything, coming from them.
Their standing ovation continued long after Frank McCourt, the teacher who had learned his own lessons slowly but well, returned to his seat.