A teacher at heart
An interview with writer Frank McCourt
By ADAM TANOUS
Express Staff Writer
It is hard to miss the central irony of Frank McCourts life, namely
that the extreme poverty of his childhood became the subject of his memoirs and,
consequently, the source of extraordinary book sales and concomitant riches.
What often gets ignored in the telling of this "American dream"
is that the majority of McCourts adult life was spent toiling in the vast middle
between rags and riches.
Before he wrote "Angelas Ashes" and "Tis,"
before he won a Pulitzer Prize and a National Book Critics Circle Award, McCourt, who is
69, spent more than 30 years teaching in the public schools of New York. While McCourt
tells some of the stories of his teaching life in "Tis," many of the
thousands of stories, those of his students, remain untold. It was the thrust of
McCourts life to inspire a sea of students to find their way and voice in life. The
very process no doubt helped McCourt find his own voice and story.
That story is the one told in "Angelas Ashes" and
"Tis." The former depicts McCourts impoverished childhood in
Limerick, Ireland. It is a grim story told with McCourts characteristic humor.
"Tis" continues the story with McCourts passage to the U.S. at the
age of 19 with just $50 in his pocket.
The memoir details McCourts experiences as a young man working in
America, pursuing an education and becoming a teacher in New York.
Recently, McCourt spoke on the telephone from his home in Conn. about his
experiences teaching and then later writing his memoirs. The occasion for the interview
was McCourts participation in the Sun Valley Writers Conference last weekend.
Mountain Express: In your most recent book, "Tis,"
your friend Paddy Clancy asks you why, with your college degree, you didnt become a
lawyer or a businessman or something where you could make some money. Why did you
go into teaching?
McCourt: I looked at various jobs. The corporate world didnt
appeal to me. I couldnt see myself in an office. And I didnt have the
self-esteem to do college teaching
You have to remember when I got off that boat
(from Ireland) I never expected to get a college degree
So, anyway, I went into high
school teaching. I also thought it would be easier than it was. I didnt expect the
heavy loadfive classes a day, five days a week. But I believed in books, and I
believed in children.
Mountain Express: What about teaching brought you the most joy?
McCourt: Learning. I think I learned more than my students. Once I
figured out that I taught 33,000 lessons to 11,000 students. I must have learned something
along the way.
Mountain Express: What would you say is wrong with the system?
McCourt: That teachers are criminally underpaid. We have a booming
economy. Did it come from illiteracy? I dont think so. We never give credit to
When things go right the politicians take the credit. When things go wrong
they point the finger at education
The problem is teaching is not an attractive
field. It is the poor sister of the professions.
Mountain Express: How would you fix it?
McCourt: Make teaching a well paid profession. There is great
begrudgery towards teaching because of all that time off. Which, of course, is ridiculous.
Mountain Express: In "Tis" Mr. Sorola, the
principal at the first school you joined, says to you "half of teaching is
procedure." What is the other half?
McCourt: Experience. It took me 15 years to begin to feel
comfortable in the classroom. It takes a while to develop your own style, an unconscious
philosophy of teaching, personality, strategies for different kids. You cant teach
Mountain Express: Do you miss it?
McCourt: Oh, yes. Because you get immediate satisfaction. You look
in their eyes and you know if you have a class. The hard part is you dont know how
it ends. Every year they leave, and you dont know what youve done for them.
Mountain Express: How are the schools in Ireland?
McCourt: They are a bit more rigid and demanding than the schools
in the U.S
Their weakest subject now is historyeveryones tired of
Irelands suffering. There are lots of computer facilities there now. Its sort
of a Silicon Valley with drizzle. So the kids are going into computers, honing their math
and computer skills.
Mountain Express: At one point in "Tis" your mother
says to you, "The past is the past and its dangerous to go back." Did you
feel this in writing these memoirs?
McCourt: I needed to go into the past. But it is dangerous.
It is poking around the wound. You are stirring things up that you may not want stirred
Mountain Express: You write with so much humoralmost amused
detachmentis there, or was there, any anger towards your father for, as you write,
"inflict(ing) a life of misfortune on our mother"?
McCourt: Yes, there was and there always will be. I think teaching
helped me deal with that anger. Standing up before the kids
it helps you
it deepened my awareness of myself.
Mountain Express: When your mother died you wrote in
"Tis" that you felt "like a child cheated." What did you mean by
McCourt: The feeling I had was not what I expected to feel. I
expected to feel a sadness, but
I felt emptiness. I felt deprived, like an orphan.
Then suddenly she became exalted in my mind.
Mountain Express: You also write in "Tis" that you
went to your fathers funeral to discover why you went to your fathers funeral.
Why did you go?
McCourt: I was always determined to write a book
I had been
scribbling for years
I didnt want to miss the significant moments and,
certainly, that was one.
Mountain Express: What was the hardest part of writing the books?
McCourt: Ive said before that the only thing worse than a
miserable childhood is writing about one
I think for the first book it was dealing
with my fatherhis abandoning us, the alcohol. With the second book, it was realizing
that my mother had had such a wretched life. And that I wasnt always the best
I could have been more attentive.
Mountain Express: What are you most proud of?
McCourt: That the books have been read by all kinds of
people. I get letters all of the timefrom all over the world.
Mountain Express: "Tis" ends in 1985. Is there more
you are working on, or are you working in other genresnovels or nonfiction?
McCourt: I am writing a novel. I think I need more freedom. The
memoir is constricting. You cant always say what you want to say
are still alive. I have ex-wives that want to kill me.
Mountain Express: Finally, are you sick of doing interviews, all of
McCourt: Well, the alternative wouldnt be a happy one
Ive sort of become a beacon of hope for the old farts of the world.