Frank McCourt, Mentor to Generations of NY Geeks, Dead at 78
Frank McCourt, the Pulitzer-Prize-winning author of Angela’s Ashes, died on Sunday, July 19, of metastatic melanoma. Though his loss is undoubtedly felt acutely in literary circles, it is also felt among the thousands of students to whom he taught English and Creative Writing, first at McKee Vocational High School in Staten Island, NY and then from 1967 to 1987 at Stuyvesant High School in Manhattan .
What does this have to do with comics, you may ask? Well, a couple of things.
Number one, among his students was Paul Levitz, current president and publisher of DC Comics, writer of The Legion of Super Heroes and Justice Society of America, and the former editor of Batman comics. Whether you can thank or condemn any of McCourt’s influence for this, I leave to the individual reader to decide.
Number two, this reporter, speaking as a Stuyvesant alumna (class of 1986) and former student of his, can tell you, McCourt reached out to two generations of young geeks. (I say this with love, as a professed geek myself.)
Stuyvesant is one of several specialized high schools in New York City — a type of magnet school. It’s a public school, but to get in you have to take a competitive entrance exam. The main emphasis of the curriculum is on science and math, and the student body regularly wins kudos in national science competitions (like the Intel Science Talent Search) and has a crack robotics team.
Despite its reputation for left-brain subjects, “Stuy’s” academic curriculum is quite varied, with electives in languages, social studies, and the arts. In the 80’s, I remember that McCourt’s class was extremely popular (and not always easy to get into).
I was not a big fan of English literature in high school. I loathed having to read Moby Dick and The House of the Seven Gables. I was a science fiction and comic book geek. Why, I asked, didn’t we get to read cool stuff like Isaac Asimov in English class? (Even I couldn’t dare hope we’d get to read a comic book in English class — folks, this was before they’d even released Watchmen. As individual issues coming out….well theoretically monthly, at least.)
At the same time, though, I loved to write. Stuyvesant had a ton of student publications, and of course a school like ours had a science fiction magazine. It was called Antares, and I got a couple of things printed up in it. I was reading the classic SF authors at the time. I wanted to grow up to be Ray Bradbury or Arthur C. Clarke or Ursula LeGuin.
So, I thought it would be perfect if, as a student at a science and math high school, I could take a creative writing course, and thus learn science+fiction = science fiction! I signed up for McCourt’s class — an elective — and managed to get in.
His teaching style was, shall we say, unconventional. It was informal, perhaps seeming at times even disorganized and
rambling, but it felt like a safe haven from our high-pressure
academic environment. He encouraged us to use our right brains, to take
a risk and tell a story without having to worry about “is this the right answer?” or, the classic refrain of the Stuyvesant student, “Is
this going to be ON THE TEST?” He didn’t pile on the homework
assignments or problem sets. He encouraged us to write — not always a
formal assignment, just anything, and bring it to class and read it to
Once I read something that was pretty much just a first draft… and not a very good one. He said, quite bluntly, that it was terrible. As a Hermione-Granger-type straight-A nerd, I don’t think any teacher had ever told me I had done crappy work. It upset me for days…then I realized, he was right. I’d just vomited silliness onto the page, without really working on it or making it something someone else would want to read. It was kind of an epiphany to me.
I will say, I took this lesson to heart. McCourt didn’t give a lot of formal assignments, but for our final projects, he asked us to write a children’s book. I actually put quite a bit of effort into mine — I even gave it full-color illustrations and bound it myself. This is in the days before desktop publishing, mind you — I did it all with paper and scissors and glue. It got an A — in fact, it got high praise. I can be taught! (Years later I even actually got some short stories and children’s books commercially published.)
McCourt would often sit in front of the room and regale us with stories about his now famously-miserable Irish childhood. By the time I got to hear them, he had already honed them with impeccable comic timing and a dry wit. He also would make crusty observations about life in general. At the time, the movie Purple Rain had just come out and he had taken his daughter to see it. He went on, crankily, for days afterward about how motorcycles and guitars were “phallic symbols.” I thought it was hilarious.
I remember in the early 90’s, just after Angela’s Ashes came out, I went to see McCourt at one of his early book readings and signings at a Barnes and Noble on the Upper West Side. He wasn’t famous yet — the audience was a Stuyvesant High School reunion — former students and some other teachers. (In fact, I sat behind another one of my former English teachers.) He read from the book in that same cranky dry tone he’d used all those years ago. I recognized some of the stories. I got my book signed. He didn’t really remember me very well — though he did ask if I’d ever gotten published the children’s book I’d written for his class. (Alas, I never did sell that particular manuscript, and this was before my other stuff was published
So, speaking as one New York Geek, I can definitely say that he influenced me. Whether you can thank him or condemn him for that…well, I leave that up to you, the individual reader.