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What It Takes - Frank McCourt


What It Takes - Frank McCourt
What It Takes - Frank McCourt
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00:00:03 ALICE WINKLER: In 1996, a New York City public school teacher, who was getting ready to retire, wrote his first book. It was a memoir about his tragic childhood in Limerick, Ireland, a childhood just bursting at the seams with misery and alcoholism and poverty.

00:00:20 FRANK MCCOURT: In economic circumstance, it was desperate. It was Calcutta with rain.

00:00:25 ALICE WINKLER: The author, of course, was Frank McCourt, and the book was Angela’s Ashes. Getting published, at 66 years old, was a lifelong dream for McCourt, but he didn’t just get published. He won a Pulitzer Prize and became a literary celebrity. It was a stunning turn of events for a humble immigrant. Back in the slums of Ireland, he’d barely had an education, but for some reason, he was always desperate to write.

00:00:54 FRANK MCCOURT: If they told me to write an essay of 150 words, I’d write 500 words. So the masters said, “Stop, McCourt. Stop. That’s enough. Stop.” And then they might read it to the class. And then, of course, I’d be teased again in the schoolyard. “For Jesus’s sake, McCourt, will you stop writing? We have to listen to it.”

00:01:12 ALICE WINKLER: Well, today we’re going to wallow in the sheer joy of listening to Frank McCourt’s stories. He tells them as well as he writes them. This is What It Takes, a podcast about passion, vision, and perseverance from the audio vault of the Academy of Achievement. Our hashtag is #WhatItTakesNow, so take a moment and let your friends know you’re listening.

00:01:37 I’m Alice Winkler.

00:01:39 OPRAH WINFREY: “Hattie Mae, this child is gifted,” and I heard that enough that I started to believe it.

00:01:45 ROGER BANNISTER: If you have the opportunity, not a perfect opportunity, and you don’t take it, you may never have another chance.

00:01:51 LAURYN HILL: It all was so clear. It was just, like, the picture started to form itself.

00:01:56 DESMOND TUTU: There was no way in which a lie could prevail over the truth, darkness over light, death over life.

00:02:04 CAROL BURNETT (quoting CARRIE HAMILTON): “Every day I wake up and decide, today I’m going to love my life. Decide.”

00:02:11 JOHNNY CASH: My advice is, if they’re going to break your leg once when you go in that place, stay out of there.

00:02:16 JAMES MICHENER: And then along come these differential experiences that you don’t look for, you don’t plan for, but boy, you’d better not miss them.

00:02:29 ALICE WINKLER: When Frank McCourt first came to speak at an Academy of Achievement event, he was still adjusting to his new life in the limelight. It was 1999, three years after he’d written Angela’s Ashes, and the same year the movie version was released. These are the first words Frank McCourt said as he took to the podium.

00:02:49 FRANK MCCOURT: I’m not here because I was a teacher. I’m here because I wrote a book. Twenty-seven years as a teacher, nobody paid me a scrap of attention.

00:02:59 Then you write a book about misery, and everybody pays attention, and they ask you for your opinion on things. I’ve been asked for my opinion on everything. I’ve been asked to write for various magazines just because I wrote this book. I’ve been asked to write for Gourmet magazine, and I grew up on bread and tea.

00:03:19 ALICE WINKLER: And even bread wasn’t a sure thing. When Frank McCourt sat for an interview following that talk, he dove into his wretched life in Limerick, but Frank McCourt, who died in 2009, was such an engaging raconteur, he could almost make you delight in his memories of hunger, typhoid, abusive teachers, terrifying priests, and an alcoholic father.

00:03:44 FRANK MCCOURT: My father, by day, when he wasn’t drinking, was the perfect father. When he’d get money, then he was a maniac. He was two different men, and I think that pertains a lot to the — I know this is a racial generalization, but it was like that when they drank. The country was so inhibited, emotionally — I think because of the church and because of the traumas that arose out of history, like the potato famine.

00:04:11 The people had gone into themselves, and it wasn’t like that in the old days, way back in medieval Ireland when they sang and danced in a wild, orgiastic way. In my generation, and the generations before me, the people had gone — so my father would sit by the fire and read the paper, and he was very laconic. But at the same time, he would tell us stories and teach us songs. And my mother was depressed because she had lost three children, but we learned song from them, and we learned storytelling, and she was a good storyteller, too, because she’d go to the movies, and we couldn’t go.

00:04:50 We didn’t have the money. She’d come home and tell us the whole movie, frame by frame. She went to see a movie once called Reap the Wild Wind, with Paulette Goddard and John Wayne, who was a bad guy in there, and Ray Milland, and she told us every line of that, and we sat around the fire. I remember that fire, looking into the flames, darting and leaping, and she’s telling the story, and we’re having tea.

00:05:17 So this is what we got from them. No television. We had no electricity so we couldn’t have anything, but there was always this stuff going on between us at home and in the streets and with the neighbors. That was rich. But then my father would ruin the whole thing with his drinking. And there was kind of a dramatic element to this. The men got out of work, out of the factories and the timber yards and the cement factories, at five-thirty. They would come home on Friday night — most of them — wash themselves to here, from here to here, never below.

00:05:48 No, people didn’t touch themselves with water from one end of the year to the other. They’d come home, wash their hands, throw water on their faces, have their Friday night tea, which was an egg because it was Friday, and then the women would give the price of a few pints. And they’d go out, and they’d have a few pints, talk, sing a few songs, come home, have tea, go to bed, and go to work the next morning.

00:06:13 Five-thirty, they were out. By six o’clock, most of them were home for that wash and their tea, but my mother would wait on tenterhooks. If he wasn’t home by six o’clock — boom, boom, bong, bong, all around the city. If he wasn’t home by the time the Angelus rang, he wasn’t coming home. And then she’d sink deeper and deeper into the chair by the fire because we knew then the wages were gone and he’d arrive home after the pubs were closed, roaring and singing down the lane, “Roddy McCorley goes to die,” and all the patriotic songs.

00:06:46 He grieved over Ireland and didn’t care if we starved to death that night and the next day. So that was the kind of atmosphere I grew up in. Poverty, alcoholism, fear of the church, fear of the schoolmasters, fear in general. But at the same time — when we got out of school, when we were away from the church, when we were out of the house — we were on the streets, and we were always excited. And when you have nothing, little things become very precious, like books. There was an occasional book that came into our house, and we just devoured it. In that sense, it was very rich.

00:07:28 ALICE WINKLER: Limerick didn’t have a library that children could use, but his mother would sometimes send him to fetch a book for her.

00:07:34 FRANK MCCOURT: When Huckleberry Finn came in, I — geez, and Tom Sawyer. I wanted to be Tom Sawyer. I wanted to go down to the River Shannon and stand at the banks of the river — and did, and dreamed it might be the Mississippi, and I’d get a raft, and off I’d go, 60 miles out to sea. And I wanted to be free like Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn. But these were the books that made a big impression on me. The main literature in our lives was the literature of the church — the Sunday missive and the lives of the saints. So these were all — and since books were so scarce, I can sort them out in my memory, even the look of them and the smell of them.

00:08:19 Everything was precious. I remember a loaf of bread that was precious because it was so little. My mother would bring home what they called the Vienna loaf. I remember one particular loaf of bread when we were so hungry — I can still taste it. So poverty does make things precious. It turns everything into jewelry.

00:08:36 ALICE WINKLER: Frank McCourt went to a government elementary school called Leamy’s National, but only until he was 13. High school wasn’t an option for kids who couldn’t afford shoes. McCourt says the teachers he remembers were horrible, but he was a good student.

00:08:52 FRANK MCCOURT: I was, I suppose, because there was no choice. They’d beat the hell out of you if you didn’t do your work. So in that sense, some of us were quicker than others. Some kids were very slow, and they suffered from it because the masters would get irritable. They wanted you to know, and if you didn’t know, if you didn’t comprehend, they would haul you out of your seat and knock you around the room, which is not advanced pedagogy.

00:09:19 ALICE WINKLER: But, as is often the case with people who rise above circumstance, there was this one teacher...

00:09:26 FRANK MCCOURT: The last teacher I had was a man named O’Halloran, but he was the only one who offered words of encouragement, who told us we were distinct, unique individuals with a right to think for ourselves. And that was just before we left Leamy’s National School, and he told me, “My boy, you are a literary genius.” And you can imagine what I had to put up with at the schoolyard.

00:09:50 “Hey, McCourt, you’re a literary genius. Look at him. Look at the literary genius.” But it wasn’t negative. It was just teasing, but they respected him, and they respected me for being picked out by Mr. O’Halloran.

00:10:05 ALICE WINKLER: There’s a scene with Mr. O’Halloran in the Hollywood movie version of Angela’s Ashes. Take a listen to this excerpt.

00:10:11 MR. O’HALLORAN: Stock your mind. It’s your house of treasure, and no one in the world can interfere with it. Fill your mind with rubbish, and it’ll rot your head. You might be poor. Your shoes might be broken, but your mind — your mind is a palace.

00:10:33 ALICE WINKLER: That scene follows one where little Frank McCourt has gotten in trouble with a different teacher for writing an essay called Jesus and the Weather. It appears in the movie, word for word, as it appears in the memoir, and I’m going to play it for you, not just because it’s so funny, but because it’s in the book and the movie to show you just how far back Frank McCourt was attracted to a certain type of storytelling.

00:11:00 FRANK MCCOURT: The title of my composition is Jesus and the Weather.

00:11:03 TEACHER: What?

00:11:05 FRANK MCCOURT: Jesus and the Weather, sir.

00:11:06 TEACHER: All right. Read it.

00:11:09 FRANK MCCOURT: I don’t think Jesus, Who is Our Lord, would have liked the weather in Limerick because it’s always raining and the Shannon keeps the whole city damp. My father says the Shannon is a killer river because it killed my two brothers. When you look at pictures of Jesus, He’s always wandering around ancient Israel in a sheet.

00:11:28 It never rains there, and you never hear of anyone coughing or getting the consumption or anything like that. And no one has a job there because all they do is stand around, eat manna, shake their fists, and go to crucifixions. Anytime Jesus got hungry, all He had to do was to walk up the road to a fig tree or an orange tree and have His fill. Or if He wanted a pint, He could wave His hand over a big glass and there was the pint. Or He could visit Mary Magdalene and her sister, Martha, and they’d give Him His dinner, no questions asked.

00:12:02 So it’s a good thing Jesus decided to be born Jewish in that nice, warm place because if He was born in Limerick, He’d catch the consumption and be dead in a month, and there wouldn’t be any Catholic Church, and we wouldn’t have to write compositions about Him. The End.

00:12:18 TEACHER: Did you write this composition, McCourt?

00:12:20 FRANK MCCOURT: I did, sir.

00:12:22 FRANK MCCOURT: I think I was always attracted to writing. I always wanted to write because, for me, it was magic to get a piece of paper and put words on it; to put together words that were never before put together by anybody; to take two words that were never joined together, like “scintillating turnip.” I would put words together like that just to keep the language fresh, and when I was nine or ten, I was trying to write a detective novel, an English detective novel, set in London, which I’d never seen.

00:12:50 All I knew about London was what I read in English detective novels. So I was always up to something like that and writing little playlets that I made my brothers act in. I wrote one play about how my youngest brother, Alphie, who was one year old, was lost, and we did lose him. He was only one, and there was a nail on the wall, and we hung him on that nail by the back of his shirt, and we did okay, and then we forgot about him. My mother came home, and she says, “Where’s the child?” And we couldn’t remember where we’d — “Where did you put him?”

00:13:23 We couldn’t remember. But we found him hanging on the wall. I think he’s been damaged by that ever since. But I would go on writing stuff like this. And Mr. O’Halloran used to take my compositions home and read them to his kids, who went to private school, so I was always scribbling.

0:13:38 ALICE WINKLER: But without more education, the best a boy like Frank McCourt could hope for was to become a messenger boy. Most of his classmates were headed for unemployment or the streets. The lucky few might make it to England, but some combination of fate and determination were on McCourt’s side. When he completed grammar school, he got a job at the post office delivering telegrams.

00:14:02 FRANK MCCOURT: You had to take kind of a test to get into the post office — for what they call a temporary telegram boy — and then you could later go to school and get the permanent telegram boy job. And if you got that then, later on, you could become a postman, and maybe a clerk in the post office selling stamps, and maybe rise in the ranks and become an inspector. Well, I went in at 14. I delivered telegrams for two years. Knocked on every door in Limerick.

00:14:29 The population of Limerick at that time was about 55,000, so I think I knocked on every door in Limerick, threw telegrams in the window, under the door, everything, was attacked by dogs and irate people who didn’t get the telegram they wanted. They’d attack you, literally. Widows expecting — a lot of the women in Limerick were widows from the British Army, and they used to get pension payments. And if you brought a telegram from somebody else wishing them “Merry Christmas,” something like that, and it wasn’t a telegram from the British Army, they’d attack you because they were so frustrated waiting for the money.

00:15:06 And you’d learn, too. They’d take one look at it, and then look at you, and you knew the attack was coming, so you’d run down the path and hop on the bike. So I became a psychologist. I could see anger coming, but I did that for two years, and then I was encouraged to take the exam for permanent telegram boy. And the morning came, and my mother wanted me to do it so that I would have a bigger income and security and the pension, and I’d get a uniform.

00:15:37 As a temporary, you didn’t get any uniforms. We were out in all kinds of weather, just with a jacket on or a sweater, in pouring rain, and we were always wet. I don’t know why I didn’t die of TB. The morning of the exam, I went down to the building, which is — the headquarters was something called the LPYMA, Limerick Protestant Young Men’s Association. And I went as far as the steps to go in. I was handing the man my form that would — and I drew back, and he said, “Are you coming in or what?” “No. No.” And I went home.

00:16:15 And my mother said — and I hung around for a while before I went home. I wanted my mother to think I took the exam, but she found out that I hadn’t taken it, and she was furious. But it was the right decision because three years later, then I just went to America.

00:16:32 ALICE WINKLER: All the suffering and the drama and the humor sounds like obvious material for an epic tale, but Irv Drasnin, the journalist who did this interview in 1999, asked McCourt whether that ever occurred to him as he was living it.

00:16:48 FRANK MCCOURT: No. Oh, no, far from it. We were all ashamed of this. You didn’t go out into the world announcing that you came from some slum. You don’t find kids from the ghettos and the slums bragging about what they came from. I remember reading James Baldwin, talking about his mother fighting the cockroaches, trying to keep the kitchen clean, trying to keep things going up in Harlem, and I said, “That’s it. This man understands because you read so little about poverty in American literature or any other literature.”

00:17:22 There was Dickens, I know, but Dickens — I became suspicious of him because he had all those happy endings. I wish Oliver Twist had died of TB — or David Copperfield. That used to piss me off when they all found out they were related to somebody in the royal family or some damn thing. So when I came across Baldwin — and George Orwell’s book Down and Out in Paris and London, and another one called The Road to Wigan Pier, he knew the details, the stink of poverty.

00:17:52 So when I was growing up, I wasn’t particularly proud of it. None of us, when we finally left — even around Limerick, if we wandered out of our lane, we went into other areas, more prosperous areas, of Limerick, we didn’t want to look like we came from the lane. But you could spot us a mile away, the urchins from the lanes. We had that look. You see kids roaming the big cities, in New York, in America, the inner cities, as they say.

00:18:21 You see bands of kids, and you know. You know where they came from. You can spot them. They’re roaming around, and you look at some of them — they don’t want to be there. They want to be someplace else. They want to be a part of what they’re walking through, the fine streets and the broad avenues, and that’s the way I felt. I didn’t want to be detected as a slum kid, but there was no choice. We didn’t have clothes. So when I came to New York, I tried to pass myself off as middle class.

00:18:52 I even tried to affect an American accent. Didn’t work. I tried some days — even nowadays, but my wife falls on the floor laughing at my attempt at an American accent. So we all wanted to sound like James Cagney. But we didn’t want to tell anybody what we came from because we were ashamed of it. And the shame — you know, concurrent with shame is anger, and my mother — when we’d joked around about this in New York, my brothers and I, my mother would say, “Will you stop talking about that? That’s the past.”

00:19:24 But eventually, we got over the shame, and we started talking about it. And it took me a long time. Then I started writing about it in my notebooks, and that led to Angela’s Ashes, a long time later on.

00:19:43 ALICE WINKLER: Frank McCourt was just 19 when he came by himself to America, full of anger at his father, at the church, at his lack of education. And his self-esteem, he said, was at rock bottom.

00:19:56 FRANK MCCOURT: So I didn’t know what to do with myself. I didn’t know how to find the door into America. Here I was. I didn’t know anybody, so I was mostly alone and floundering. And then I had to deal with something else that people rarely talk about. It’s an ethnic story in a way, but I had the English language.

00:20:20 Other people come from Italy and Czechoslovakia and places like that, and they have to grapple with America, and they have to grapple with trying to master the English language as well. But at least I had the language, so that made it fairly — that made it more convenient for me, but the minute I opened my mouth, then they’d say, “Oh, you’re Irish.” They’d say, “What you should do is join the cops.” And I didn’t want to join the cops. Suddenly I’m labeled. I wasn’t a human being. In Ireland, I was just a low-class type, but here I’m a low-class Irish type, an Irish low-class type.

00:20:51 So I didn’t know. Somehow I had to deal with that: “Oh, you’re Irish.” And at that time — that was 1949 — there was still some kind of a lingering residue of prejudice against the Irish. People used to tell me — all the people, up and down New England. And in New York, there would be signs saying, “No Irish need apply.” And even the Irish Americans would listen to me, and they’d patronize me.

00:21:16 I was a bit simple, as if I had just come off a farm. And I knew better than that. I knew I was better than that. Irish Americans who were running elevators and working as porters, they were looking down on me, and I knew then that I was, again, at the bottom of the heap. And I was confused most of the time. I never had anything but the dream of getting out of this, that I wanted to be something else, but I didn’t know what; there was no clear-cut dream.

00:21:49 I thought I’d like to have a job, a decent job in an office. I’d like to be in an office, sitting behind a desk, pushing papers around, making little decisions about pushing papers, get out at five o’clock, meet this gorgeous girl, and we’d probably get married and have two-and-a-half kids and live out in Long Island or someplace like that. And I’d go to mass every Sunday morning, be nice and warm and clean, and I’d be accepted, and I’d lose my Irish accent, and I’d sound like James Cagney.

00:22:20 ALICE WINKLER: So what did he do instead?

00:22:23 FRANK MCCOURT: I read a lot. I discovered the 42nd Street Library. That’s what I did. I read and read and read, voraciously and widely. Then I was liberated from this menial job I had in a hotel. I was the man with the dustpan and the broom in the lobby. I was liberated by the Chinese, who attacked Korea, and America drafted me. So I don’t know what I would have done if the Chinese hadn’t attacked Korea. I’m a victim of history in Ireland, and I’m a beneficiary of history in America.

00:23:01 ALICE WINKLER: The GI Bill is what Frank McCourt is talking about. During the Korean War, he was lucky to avoid the battlefield. Instead, he was sent to Germany to train dogs and type reports. After the war, the GI Bill gave him the chance to finally have the education he’d craved. By the mid-1960s, he had a bachelor’s degree and a master’s. It was while he was in a class at NYU that he finally got a glimpse of how to go about becoming a writer.

00:23:30 FRANK MCCOURT: We were asked to write about a single thing, an object in our childhood. And the object that meant most to me, or 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!”

00:24:04 And 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’d light a candle to get at them — 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, and the professor said — gave me an A-plus.

00:24:34 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 disgusted.

00:25:03 But I found myself being stopped, leaving the class that day. “Is that how you grew up?” I seemed to suddenly have become kind of an exotic in the class. So that was a turning point. One little thing can change the course of your life or can change your emotional landscape.

00:25:23 ALICE WINKLER: Mind you, it would still be another 30 years before McCourt would write his first book, Angela’s Ashes. In the interim, he dedicated himself to teaching in the public high schools of New York, a job and a life he was passionate about. And maybe that’s not surprising, given the impact that Mr. O’Halloran and the NYU professor had on his life. But teaching was no picnic, especially when he showed up for his first job at McKee Vocational High School in Staten Island.

00:25:54 FRANK MCCOURT: 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 — 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, tough kids who were not a bit interested in what I had to say, so I had to hook them.

00:26:20 I went into the classroom as — my only models were Irish schoolmasters, 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 are you talking like that?” And they were talking to me. I’m the schoolmaster. “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 and not to take it personally when the kids would erupt.

00:26:59 And 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 — not to be quite impassive over it, but to understand what was happening in the classroom. That was the beginning of my education.

00:27:26 I learned to drop the mask, and I became — really, 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. It took me a long time to come to grips with myself, never mind the kids.

00:27:57 Before that, I had worked in warehouses. I had worked on the docks. I had done all kinds of physical work, but I was never so exhausted as I was after a day at McKee High School. I used to go home and throw myself on the floor, without benefit of pillow or anything — and just throw myself on the floor and lie there for two hours to physically and emotionally recover — and dreaded going in the next day. But there was something that happened again. One morning, I was taking the train from Brooklyn into Manhattan, where I got the ferry to go out to Staten Island, and I was getting off the train at Whitehall Street, stepping off the train and onto the platform, and this thought came into my head.

00:28:39 “You could decide today to be happy. You could just make a decision, instead of going in fear and trembling into the classroom.” Now it’s easy to say that, and it doesn’t always work, but I realized that I was resisting some kind of gloom gravity that most of us — most of the time, we look on the dark side, but you have to work at lifting yourself up. But I tried it that day, and it was the beginning of that kind of practice.

00:29:08 So then I realized, “If you don’t enjoy yourself in the classroom, get out.” It would have been easier for me to do what my three brothers did — go into the bar business. Go up there and meet glamorous men and beautiful women on the East Side and stay out all night drinking and have brunch with some long-legged creature from Boston. No. I thought of that, but then I thought of the kids in the classroom, and there was something more appealing about that. And besides, I wanted to get through.

00:29:41 I wanted to get through to them, and I wanted things to click, and sometimes there’s something that happens in a classroom that I know actors experience, and artists, in general. There’s some time when you make a breakthrough and there’s some light goes on. One day in McKee, I made a breakthrough of some kind. And for me, there was a kind of a white blazing light in the room, and I thought, “Jesus, this is absolutely orgasmic in an intellectual and emotional sense.”

00:30:12 And I knew then that what I did was — we were dealing with a poem, and the poem was called My Papa’s Waltz. And you know, you’re always so “Look for the deeper meaning” with the kids, and then there would be a test. But I said to the kids, “Let’s get inside the poem. What’s going on in here?” And that was a huge — there was an explosion for me at that moment because we were doing it together. I wasn’t a teacher anymore — “I know everything, and you’re just out there. I’ll tell you what you need to know.”

00:30:43 “You tell me what’s happening. Tell me what’s going on in here.” I think that colored my whole teaching career because, as Dylan Thomas said, “A job is death without dignity.” And I didn’t want that kind of life. I had to go into the classroom and enjoy myself, and I’d say to the kids every September, “By the end of this term, there’s one person in this class who will have learned something, and that will be me, and I have to enjoy myself.” I told them, “I have to enjoy myself here. I have to do it. You’ll be graduating, and I’ll still be here, and I’m not going to wither on the vine. I’m not going be old Mr. Chips. I’m going to swing!”

00:31:28 ALICE WINKLER: Frank McCourt went on from McKee to two other schools and then spent his last 18 years teaching at Stuyvesant, one of the most competitive high schools in Manhattan. In the end, whether he was teaching rich kids or poor, McCourt’s goal was always to help the kids think for themselves and know their worth.

00:31:47 FRANK MCCOURT: And now I’m going to digress a bit.

00:31:49 ALICE WINKLER: That’s Frank McCourt speaking to students at another Academy of Achievement event almost a decade after the interview you’ve been hearing.

00:31:55 FRANK MCCOURT: I read an essay a few years ago by Jonathan Swift on digression. You should all read it because in this country there’s too much sticking to the point.

00:32:05 And that’s the difference between the Irish and the English, and this is another digression.

00:32:14 That an Englishman in love will say, “Darling, I love you. Will you marry me?” Simple. The Irishman, however, says, “Mary, how would you like to be buried with my people?”

00:32:29 That’s the difference. And that was one of the complaints I had from my students when I was teaching. I became a devotee of digression, and they’d say — and because a lot of the kids in the last school I taught at, Stuyvesant High School, which is the jewel in the crown of New York City high schools, science and mathematics, and you know how that is. You have to stick to the subject, stick to the procedure, the elegant solution.

00:32:57 So these kids used to ask me, “Mr. McCourt, five minutes ago you were talking about something else?” And I would say, “Well, I’m testing your attention span.”

00:33:06 But in my teaching days, I found it difficult not to digress. I know there was a curriculum, or a syllabus, or a course of study we were given at every term — freshman year, first-term freshman year, second-term, all the way up to the end of the senior year, and I tried it. I was a young teacher. I didn’t succeed. I suppose I didn’t have the required passion for dangling participles, but I’m digressing.

00:33:40 Back to what I learned, and this is a huge digression. This is up-in-space digression.

00:33:48 This is October the fourth, 1958, I think it was. October the fourth being the feast day of my favorite saint, Francis of Assisi. That requires another digression, but I’m going to come back to where I was.

00:34:02 So October fourth, that year, there was a strange sound heard in space, this “beep, beep, beep,” and they’re down in Washington and Houston and Cape Canaveral, and they say, “What the hell is this?” And so, Jesus, it’s a little Russian golden ball going around in space. It’s called Sputnik. “Beep, beep.” The beep was in Russian. But they...

00:34:32 “Beep.” And it’s going through space, and there was hell to pay in Washington. “How do these goddamn Russians have a little golden ball in space before we do?” And somebody said, who lost their job, “Well, their German scientists are better than our German scientists.”

00:34:52 We had a guy down there, but he was too slow, but he was highly rewarded. He was an ex-Nazi, and so on. But their little golden beep is up there. So because of that golden beep, there’s hell to pay in Washington at the Department of Education. And Eisenhower’s in office, and he gave up a whole afternoon of golf to come back and listen to the “beep, beep, beep.”

00:35:14 And everybody said, “What are we going to do? What are we going to do?” And of course, somebody had to be blamed. There had to be a scapegoat! And of course, when in doubt, and you’re looking for a scapegoat: the schools — the teachers, particularly. “The teachers!” This was said. You go back and look at the newspapers. “The teachers are not doing their jobs. Our schools are falling apart.” And a big report had come out under the Eisenhower era about the terrible state of our public schools, and so on.

00:35:50 A Nation at Risk, it was called, and, oh, everybody, they’re all scratching their heads, and there was hell to pay in Washington. And they blamed the schools, but they said, “What are we going to do?” So suddenly, I’m teaching — I just started teaching in high school, and there was a memo that came around, and it said, “Do you need anything?”

00:36:14 I used to have to beg for a stick of chalk, but now the government decided, “Well, maybe we ought to give them supplies in the schools. Maybe we ought to encourage everybody. Maybe we ought to reduce class sizes, et cetera. Not raise teachers’ salaries — never, never, never — but give them more composition paper, give them more chalkboard erasers, and so on.” So I started getting supplies.

00:36:40 I hardly knew what to do with all the composition paper. I had so much chalk, I was writing on the walls in addition to the...

00:36:47 I was writing everywhere. And then, of course, that dried up. What goes on in the classroom is still a secret because most people don’t understand — they think that all you do is you get up in front of a class and talk. An English teacher talks about Shakespeare. A math teacher talks about algebra and calculus, and so on, and you lecture, the way they do in the movies. It’s not like that at all. I used to think you’d get in there and you’d start teaching. No, you don’t start teaching!

00:37:22 You separate fights. You answer requests for the pass. They are hardly in their seats five minutes — “We’ve got to have the pass.” All of this stuff is going on. There’s something called the subject matter — English. “Oh, we should get around to that sometime.” But the kids are geniuses. This is what people forget about them. They’ve been in school for nine, ten, eleven years, and they are masters of teacher psychology.

00:37:52 They can tell, by the way you walk into the room, what you’re like. Every teacher has a desk. Some teachers hide behind the desk, or lean on the desk, or sit behind the desk. That’s not good. That shows you’re fearful. You have to stand up, come out from behind the desk, and go full frontal.

00:38:12 Let them see you. And they can tell about your demeanor, your posture, the tone of your voice, what kind of person or what kind of teacher you’re going to be. And they decide then, should they let you live or will they kill you?

00:38:31 So all of this was going on in the classroom, and in the meantime, I am surviving in these various schools. And maybe, after 15 years of my 30 years in the classroom, I’m beginning to develop what they call a style of my own. Everybody does it. People in the media have to develop their own style. Politicians do it. And I didn’t realize — I thought I’d imitate other teachers.

00:38:56 You can’t because you’re false yourself. So I figured out my own way of dealing with them, with the class, is, well, there was digression. I admit there was digression, but the other valuable part of it was the story. They wanted to know about me because they’re very smart kids. They detected I had an accent of some kind.

00:39:17 And they wanted to know what it was, and I told them it was Irish. And what they’re doing — what they’re doing is getting me away from the subject because I’m about to launch into this brilliant pejoration on the indirect object, and they want to get me...

00:39:36 ...they want to get me away from that, so they ask me questions about my life, about Ireland, and so on, and I know what they’re doing. But I don’t mind because I don’t mind telling them stories about Ireland, and this is how I survived all the years in the four different high schools, talking about my past. I didn’t want to talk about my past. My past was sordid and miserable, the miserable Irish Catholic childhood. I thought it was worthless, but they seemed to be interested somewhat.

00:40:08 They were somewhat interested, so I told my stories, and I left. Then towards the end of my teaching career, they told me that I should go and write a book, and I do what I’m told, so I wrote a book.

00:40:22 ALICE WINKLER: Frank McCourt actually wrote three books. The other two, ‘Tis and Teacher Man, were memoirs that picked up where his first left off, telling his experiences as an immigrant in New York and in the classroom, both as engaging, insightful, and funny as Angela’s Ashes. Which brings me back to the interview and to the subject of humor. Journalist Irv Drasnin wanted to know how Frank McCourt squared all the struggle in his life with that glorious wit.

00:40:54 FRANK MCCOURT: If you talk to anybody who has come out of adverse circumstances, they’ll tell you that humor keeps you going. That’s the way it was in the lanes and the slums of Limerick — that, as poor as people were, they sang, they told their stories, and they laughed. They laughed over the neighbors because Limerick — Ireland has been called an open-air lunatic asylum, and people wander the streets of Limerick who are, you know, a bit daft. In America, they’d be locked up in a minute, but we saw them — and then we would imitate the teachers.

00:41:27 We’d come home from school imitating the schoolmasters. We’d imitate policemen, bureaucrats giving out the welfare down at the dispensary. We imitated and made fun of everybody, and even ourselves. We’d tease each other and literally fall on the ground laughing. I think there was this excitement and the sense of joy in life, with our low expectations. If you don’t have it — if you don’t have that particular chemical, you’re dead.

00:41:56 ALICE WINKLER: The other ingredient key to Frank McCourt’s survival was purpose — finding his sense of purpose, even though it took most of a lifetime to figure out what it was and what it had been.

00:42:10 FRANK MCCOURT: The day I retired from teaching, again, was one of the most satisfying days of my life. It was sad, but the day I retired, I went home, and I was by myself, and I was having a glass of wine. I was thinking about the lunch the teachers gave me that day, the retirement lunch, and I was able to look back on that life, that 30 years in the classroom, and say — I was able to congratulate myself. I’m glad I did that. That was good. I felt useful, and I was dealing with kids, and I hope that I had been of some use, of some help.

00:42:41 You never know. That and publishing the book, what more can a man ask for? My dream has been fulfilled, to have come to this country, to have taught, and for me, it’s beyond the American Dream. I think if there’s another place that’s even better than America, maybe heaven or something, I’ve gone beyond it. I know — I found out eventually why I was put on this earth. I was put on this earth to write, and as Thomas Carlyle said, “Happy is the man who has found his work.” So I’m happy.

00:43:13 ALICE WINKLER: Writer and teacher Frank McCourt speaking to the Academy of Achievement in 1999 and 2008. He died in 2009, at the age of 78. This is What It Takes. In fact, it’s the 50th episode of What It Takes, so a special thank-you today for listening. If you’ve just discovered our podcast, go back and peruse the list of incredible people we’ve featured, treasures all. I’m Alice Winkler.

00:43:54 What It Takes is generously funded by the Catherine B. Reynolds Foundation.

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What It Takes is a podcast of conversations with well-known people in almost every field. The interviews have been recorded over the past 25 years by the American Academy of Achievement. They offer life stories of people who have had a huge impact on the world. They offer insights you can apply to your own life.

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