July 19, 2009

Why not almost any other famous person?

McCourtyearbook.jpg It would be an exaggeration to say that Frank McCourt is the reason I'm a writer, but to the extent that I'm not a terrible writer, he deserves a lot of the credit. McCourt was my high school English teacher. I took several classes with him — anybody who took one always pulled whatever strings they could to get more. It was from him that I learned to listen for "the poetry of everyday language." He despised ornament in writing, vastly preferring elegance. If he heard a word in an essay that wouldn't have come out of your mouth, he'd ask who was supposed to be speaking. And while I can't fully agree with him that no writer should ever use the word "trudge" for that reason, I know that I've never used it. He squeezed out my teenage tendency toward melodrama and clichéd romanticism and drew out gimlet-eyed honesty. He would not like that I just said "gimlet-eyed."

As you can imagine, McCourt's teaching method was largely storytelling. And singing. I will never hear Wild Mountain Thyme without thinking of him. He retired the same year I graduated, and by then he knew he was an inspiring figure. He used to say that when we went on to use his advice to write a book, he'd want 10 percent. Of course, by the time my first book came out, I could have given him 90 percent and it wouldn't have begun to approach 10 percent of what his made. Never has anyone deserved success more completely.

Over the years I'd run into McCourt periodically and he was always warm and friendly. I last saw him a few months ago at an event he did in Woodstock and when I gave him a copy of Rapture Ready! he held it up for the crowd and beamed, "Former student!" It was perhaps the most rewarding response I've had.

Beyond the practical lessons I learned in Frank McCourt's class, I'll always remember him as a model for how to be cynical without being jaded and sarcastic without being inhumane. I'm pretty sure he did not believe in God or an afterlife, but he had to believe that there is an immortality in living so that your words and actions transform the world around you in ways that will continue to reverberate forever. No one with so much life in him can ever truly die. And if there were an afterlife, I can guarantee you that somewhere right now, Frank McCourt would be mightily pissed off that he's not around for what's sure to be a hell of a wake.

Posted by Daniel Radosh


Thanks, Daniel.

Thanks for capturing this so well. As another of his former students-turned-writers, I'm hurting today too.

A giant gone.

All of us were lucky - so lucky - to have randomly been in that classroom; of all the schools, of all the teachers.

I've never met a former student of his who was not a writer. That's a pretty good record of achievement for a teacher as I see it.

Thank you so much for posting this. I hope you don't mind that I linked to it from my blog.

Mike I had no idea you knew him. I am sorry for your loss. You're right about the wake and I'm sure he'll be there.
Kathy G.

Mike? I think you're looking for my kid brother.

Loved this Daniel and can relate. I took a memoir class with Frank a few years ago and unlike other workshops I've taken he graded all of our submissions. I felt like I was back in school but with a teacher that actually cared.

The world is lesser for Frank McCourt's passing but infinitely greater for his transit here. Frank will likely be the most elegantly eulogized ever -- I hope someone anthologizes the paeans written by his more talented students. May you who were blessed by his tutelage continue to channel his effulgence, and may the rest of us be illuminated by it. Hell, I feel honored now to have enjoyed a couple of sessions with his massage therapist nephew Cormac!

He had no time for pretention, sharp, hilarious, and quite kind.

Do you remember him teaching us:

Isn't it grand, boys, to be bloody well dead,
Let's not have a whimper,
Let's have a bloody good cry,
'Cause always remember the longer you live
The sooner you bloody-well die.

Oh and his rapture on Hemingway's "it was good" from Big Two-Hearted River.

Greetings to all of the fraternity and sorority-- I would love to see a room-- a stadium?? filled with his former students. I have been up three night in a row now, flooded with memories. I remember him fiercely saying "WHO is the BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN? That he should be on the cover of Time and Newsweek? Has he won the NOBEL PEACE PRIZE!!??" Bless him forever.

Corin-- they went to Spain and it was good, and fought in the war, and it was good, and drank the wine, and it was good, and made love to the women, and it was good, and got trampled by the bloody bulls in bloody Pamplona, and it was good . . . ;)

Said on March 16th, 1987:

"I will not be here tomorrow, nor the next day. Tomorrow, I will be celebrating St. Patrick's Day. The next day, I will be sick."

Dan, it's nice to see you so unabashedly positive. You use a lot of your space here to question and to criticize (which I don't intend as a criticism, obviously I come here a lot); but it's all the more moving to see you write something so warm.

I've never read his book, but after reading your tribute I will.

"... squeezed out my teenage tendency ..."


^the above from me.

McCourt's class was often the most entertaining of the day, and I'm sad that he's dead, though happy that he achieved so much. Angela's Ashes is a brilliant book and everyone should read it if they haven't. But McCourt had his own blinders. I remember being humiliated by him in class for using the phrase "passed gas" instead of "fart." He no doubt thought such a phrase was phony and not how people talked, as you say. Only, I was raised by WASPs and this is indeed how we talked at home at the time. I was pissed at him for giving me shit for being "inauthentic" when I was just not authentically working-class Irish.

The thing I really learned from McCourt, regardless, was not to be afraid to be myself. That's a great gift from any teacher.

Frank McCourt taught me that my students, like me, like all of us, have their own stories, and sorrows.

TP Chuan

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