Alex Newman

McCourt’s humanity was a rare gift

By Alex Newman
July 27, 2009

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I FIRST MET Frank McCourt my freshman year at Stuyvesant High School. I fancied myself a writer, and even though Creative Writing was restricted to upperclassmen, that didn’t stop me from besieging the head of the English department until he grudgingly said he would pass one of my stories on to the instructor. If he liked it, I could take the class.

Frank liked it, although he never told me why. I think what he liked most was that I was passionate about writing. Stuyvesant specialized in math and science, and I wasn’t much interested in those subjects (or school at all, really). The school was a cold, unfriendly, mausoleum of a building and most of the teachers weren’t much different. Many of them were just marking time until summer break or retirement; some wretched few were actively cruel and treated the students with contempt. But not Frank McCourt. Room 205 was an oasis, a place where it was all right to be interested in something other than calculus and where there frequently wasn’t a correct answer - or sometimes there were six. I cut a lot of classes, but I never missed one of his.

He required all of his students to keep a journal, and on Fridays we would share our writings. He would leave his desk and sit among the students while someone else commanded our attention. On those Fridays when there weren’t enough people bold enough or garrulous enough to fill the hour, he would bring out a battered folder of his own writings and read to us.

It was a series of disconnected episodes from a life we soon learned was his. Some of the stories were unutterably sad; some made you laugh so hard you couldn’t breathe. Some were both at once. All were wonderful, and I don’t think there was anyone in that room who didn’t know that they were in the presence of something special. As his soft, almost musical voice filled the room, he showed us all a little bit of his life before we came into it.

Just as he encouraged and exhorted us, we told him he needed to finish the book and get it published. High school students aren’t naïve, but we knew that if he would just finish the book, it would practically walk itself to bookstores all over the country.

Frank was his own worst enemy in this regard. He loved his teaching and his students so much that his first book waited for his retirement, when he finally had the time. I know that if he could have ushered in his great success earlier by retiring 10 years before he did, he would have kept on teaching anyway. It didn’t matter who you were. If you were one of Frank’s students, he cared about you.

Friends keep saying “he must have been a wonderful man.’’ He wasn’t, at least not in the sense they mean - some serene Buddha, dispensing wisdom with a brogue. But he was the most human man I knew, the most ready to share his humanity and to have others share theirs with him. When you’re 15 and gripped with that savage cynicism that afflicts teens, meeting an adult who gives you a glimpse of his life’s experiences is a rare gift. When that adult is also a teacher, it is a wonder.

His inscription in my yearbook concludes “I expect to hear from you until the last trump blows,’’ and I willingly and lovingly took on that expectation. Life got in the way of our connection at times, but we stayed in touch through the years. On those long, dark nights of the soul, he was my lighthouse as he was to so many of the people whose lives he gently touched. Those lives, lived with more honesty and compassion than they would have been without his influence, are the kind of memorial he would have wanted, and one that will last until that last trump sounds.

Alex Newman is the producer and director of The Boston Babydolls Burlesque Troupe.

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