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If you like Frank McCourt's story, you might also like:
David Herbert Donald,
James Michener,
N. Scott Momaday,
John Sexton,
Amy Tan and
John Updike

Frank McCourt can also be seen and heard in our Podcast Center

Frank McCourt's recommended reading: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finny

Frank McCourt also appears in the video:
Heroes and the American Dream

Teachers can find prepared lesson plans featuring Frank McCourt in the Achievement Curriculum section:
Poets & Poetry

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Simon & Schuster
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Frank McCourt
Frank McCourt
Profile of Frank McCourt Biography of Frank McCourt Interview with Frank McCourt Frank McCourt Photo Gallery

Frank McCourt Interview (page: 4 / 6)

Pulitzer Prize for Biography

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  Frank McCourt

When did you first know what you wanted to do with your life?

Frank McCourt: Well, I always wanted to write but I didn't know how to go about it. I didn't have the courage of certain people that you hear about. I read something about Shelby Foote recently who wrote a story for the Saturday Evening Post when he was 19 and that was it. He was on his way. Or other people like Scott Fitzgerald. He had a college education and so on, but I didn't know where to begin and I didn't know what to write. I certainly was not going to write about my experiences growing up in this slum in Ireland. Then something happened when I finally went to NYU.

We were asked to write about a single thing, an object in our childhood. And the object that meant most to me that was so significant was the bed I slept in with my brothers, all four of us. This half acre of a bed with a disaster of a mattress, which collapsed in the middle. Everybody peed in the bed, so the spring was gone, and we tried to keep it together with bits of string, but after a while the acid from our bodies rotted the string. We'd get into bed and we'd roll into the middle, the four of us, and fight, "Get out of my way." Meanwhile the fleas were feasting on us. And if you had to go the john you went to a bucket and so on and came back. And we were -- we'd light a candle to get at the -- and we'd hold the candle and we'd go slapping at each other's legs and bodies killing the fleas. That was probably the most concrete image I brought away from my childhood and I wrote about that. The professor gave me an "A+." And I said, "Jesus, this is very strange." And then he says, "Please read this to the class." And I said, "No." "Would you?" "No." "Would you please?" I said, "No, I'd be ashamed." And he read it. He said, "Do you mind if I read it?" So he read it to the class and I think they sensed that I was the one who wrote it, and good looking girls started looking at me in an interested way, but I thought they'd be -- I thought they'd be disgusted. But I found myself being stalked leaving the class that day. "Is that how you grew up?" And it seemed -- I seemed to suddenly have become kind of an exotic in the class.

[ Key to Success ] Vision

That stuck in my head. I still wasn't convinced that this was the material of my writing but I kept going with notebooks, and making lists of people I grew up with, the streets in Limerick, the shops, the priests and everything else. That was a turning point.

The encouragement of that one teacher?

Frank McCourt: That one teacher. The one in Ireland, Mr. O'Halloran, who told me I was a literary genius and this man at NYU. One little thing can change the course of your life, or can change your emotional landscape.

You went from there not to writing, but to teaching?

Frank McCourt: Yeah, I went into teaching. My dream existence would have been to have a loft or a small place in the Village, and to write there, and to hook up with a ballerina. I wanted to live with a ballerina because I imagined all kinds of wild physical things. We'd have this loft, and she'd go off with Balanchine every day and do her steps and she'd come back in the evening and we'd have wine. Wine, cheese and an apple, and fine bread, and then we'd just go at it on the floor of the studio, and she'd do fantastic things with her legs.

That didn't happen.

Frank McCourt: That didn't happen. I became a teacher, in a very rough school.

There was no lolling about the floor. It was getting up in the morning at 6:30 to take the ferry to Staten Island to McKee Vocational High School, and to go into a class -- five classes of tough kids who were not a bit interested in what I had to say, so I had to hook them, and I was thrown into this. As I told you before, I had no high school education myself. I had never been in a high school so I had to -- I was -- nobody told me what to do. They just threw me into the classroom and here I was in front of these American teenagers who were a species from another world from me.

[ Key to Success ] Courage

What did you learn from that experience?

Frank McCourt: I learned to drop the mask. I went into the classroom as -- my only models were Irish school masters and I thought I'd go in there and I'd roar at the kids in McKee Vocational High School the way the masters roared at us. It didn't work. "Yo, teach, why you talking like that?" And they were talking to me. I'm the school master, "Yo, teach," and I had to stop this. I had to find some other way of dealing with the kids, of running the classes, and I found eventually the only way to deal with them was to be honest, to just try to get to them. I didn't know how. I found it very difficult to even deal with people on a one to one basis because we put up so many defenses when we were kids. And we were so angry all the time that even in the one-to-one situation in New York, if somebody disagreed with me, it got my Irish up so to speak, and I'd get angry. I couldn't realize that this is a person who just wanted to discuss something. I thought they were opposing me and that would lead to fisticuffs. "Would you like to step outside?" So it took me a long, long time to get over that. And it was only through the teaching I learned to put this anger aside and not to take it personally when the kids would erupt. You know, when you have 150 or 170 high school kids every day there will be eruptions, and they get angry and they direct it at the teacher, but it's not at the teacher. It's something they brought from home. You know, you can get all psychological about this, but I learned not to take it personally. I learned not to be quite impassive over it, but to understand what was happening in the classroom. That was the beginning of my education.

[ Key to Success ] Preparation

You learned from these kids?

Frank McCourt: All the years that I was teaching I was learning. That was the main thing in my life, I think. I became a human being in front of those classes, because I wasn't. I was kind of a stick of dynamite when I came to New York, and when I started all this teaching. But over the years -- in McKee, the years at Seward Park High School down in the lower east side of Manhattan, then especially the 18 years at Stuyvesant High School -- that was my university, and boy, I'm a late bloomer. It took me a long time to come to grips with myself, never mind the kids, but I learned from that.

I think, in many ways they were more mature than I was, these American teenagers, because when I was 19 my mental age was about 11. That's what I brought with me from Ireland, the baggage, and the fear, and the anger.

What were you hoping to accomplish as a teacher?

Frank McCourt: I didn't know in the beginning what I wanted to accomplish. I had to work things out for myself because nobody was telling me.

I wasn't particularly intellectual, I think I moved a lot by instinct, and then a hint at intellect came along after it. I worked out this equation: What am I doing in the classroom? And I wanted to move the kids from what I call "From F to F: from Fear to Freedom." And I would explain most of us are fearful of something or other. So if I accomplished anything in the class, it was to help the kids to think for themselves, because we had never been encouraged to think for ourselves. We were told we were worthless. The only thing for us to do was behave ourselves, observe the edicts or the pronouncements of the Catholic Church so we could go up to heaven. But eventually I knew the kids lived in a state of fear. Over what? You know, being teenagers, worried about their looks, worried about their popularity with the opposite sex, worried about their future, and I wanted to try to help them think for yourself.

[ Key to Success ] Integrity

That was a dangerous thing to do, especially at Stuyvesant High School because parents had already imposed their expectations on the kids. "I want you to go to MIT. I want you to go to Harvard." A lot of kids didn't want to do that.

Frank McCourt Interview Photo
I had one kid who wanted to be a classical guitarist. His father said, "Not on my nickel. You're going to Boston University and you're going to be an accountant." And he came to me and he said, "What do I do?" I said, "Who's paying for the college?" "He is." "All right. You could tell your father take a running jump and go off and take your chances at the world." And his father said, "You could be a guitarist on the side. Do it on the weekends, but you're not going to study music on my nickel." So he went to Boston and became an accountant. That's the fear.

I realized the impulse of the parents, how they want their kids to be secure and everything. I realized that, and I realized the romantic dreams of the kids, which were not romantic, they were real dreams, because I had them myself. How do you steer a middle course between the parents and the kids? You have to be careful that you don't turn kids against parents or parents against kids. So I had to organize this and try all the time to present both sides of the story. That was my main learning experience, and that's why I don't take any extreme.

I used to think I was a Democrat, now I'm more independent. I don't have the energy for one "ism," to be on one side or the other. If I'm crossing the street, it's easier for me to look both ways, because if you look just one way you're liable to get killed. So I go my own way as far as religion is concerned, or politics or anything else. It's the predictability of a Democratic position or a Republican position that bores the hell out of me. I learned all this because of my particular predicament as a teacher, finding the middle way and having compassion for both sides.

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This page last revised on Sep 09, 2013 14:23 EST
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