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For the week of August 30 through September 5, 2000

A teacher at heart

An interview with writer Frank McCourt

Express Staff Writer

It is hard to miss the central irony of Frank McCourt’s 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 McCourt’s adult life was spent toiling in the vast middle between rags and riches.

Before he wrote "Angela’s 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 McCourt’s 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 "Angela’s Ashes" and "‘Tis." The former depicts McCourt’s impoverished childhood in Limerick, Ireland. It is a grim story told with McCourt’s characteristic humor. "‘Tis" continues the story with McCourt’s passage to the U.S. at the age of 19 with just $50 in his pocket.

The memoir details McCourt’s 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 McCourt’s 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 didn’t 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 didn’t appeal to me. I couldn’t see myself in an office. And I didn’t 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 didn’t expect the heavy load—five 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 don’t think so. We never give credit to teachers…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 can’t teach teaching.

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 don’t know how it ends. Every year they leave, and you don’t know what you’ve 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 history—everyone’s tired of Ireland’s suffering. There are lots of computer facilities there now. It’s 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 it’s 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 up.

Mountain Express: You write with so much humor—almost amused detachment—is 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…I think 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 that?

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 father’s funeral to discover why you went to your father’s funeral. Why did you go?

McCourt: I was always determined to write a book…I had been scribbling for years…I didn’t want to miss the significant moments and, certainly, that was one.

Mountain Express: What was the hardest part of writing the books?

McCourt: I’ve 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 father—his abandoning us, the alcohol. With the second book, it was realizing that my mother had had such a wretched life. And that I wasn’t always the best son…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 time—from all over the world.

Mountain Express: "‘Tis" ends in 1985. Is there more you are working on, or are you working in other genres—novels or nonfiction?

McCourt: I am writing a novel. I think I need more freedom. The memoir is constricting. You can’t always say what you want to say…because people are still alive. I have ex-wives that want to kill me.

Mountain Express: Finally, are you sick of doing interviews, all of the attention?

McCourt: Well, the alternative wouldn’t be a happy one either…I’ve sort of become a beacon of hope for the old farts of the world.


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