The Calico Cat
A weblog about business, economics, law, politics, and current events - nothing about cats
Creative Writing With Frank McCourt
In the course of maintaining this blog, people have occasionally given me positive comments on the quality of my writing. Maybe they are just saying this to be nice, or maybe they are sincere. Probably the former explanation is correct, but if there is any truth to the latter, then one may ask how I came to be such a good writer.
The answer is that I had a really great Creative Writing teacher when I was at Stuyvesant High School. His name was Frank McCourt, and yes, that’s the same Frank McCourt who’s the author of the best selling book Angela's Ashes. I didn’t take Creative Writing because it’s what I was interested in—not that I actually knew what I was interested in back when I was in high school—I took the class because Frank McCourt was so highly recommended by other students.
It should be noted here that one of the reasons he was so recommended was because he would allegedly let kids cut his class whenever they wanted to. The “cool kids” (the ones who lived on the Upper East Side) could often be seen hanging out in Stuyvesant Square Park smoking pot when they should have been in McCourt’s class.
Were you really allowed to cut his class at will? I’m not sure; I think he started cracking down on that the semester I had him. I might have cut his class once or twice, but the reality is that I didn’t want to cut his class because he was the most interesting teacher I had. His class was always a delight, and he kept us constantly entertained with his stories and witty humor. Unfortunately, I don’t really remember any of the stories. I think I vaguely recall him talking about how hard life was when he was a kid, and these brief anecdotes evoked nervous laughter because one couldn’t tell if he was being serious or not. Based upon Angela’s Ashes, I guess he was serious. Who knew that stuff was true?
Mr. McCourt definitely had a Bob Newhart kind of humor: dry and sarcastic. And he would purposely attempt to keep you guessing as to whether he was saying something in jest or being serious. One of the more memorable things he did was to read from the Book of Genesis and make snide and humorous interpretations of the passages. It was very funny, but you had to be there to appreciate it. Mocking the Bible is probably not something a teacher could ever get away with at a typical high school, but Stuyvesant students weren’t known for their religiosity. If any had a strong belief in God, they kept it private out of fear of embarrassing themselves. Whatever hang-ups McCourt had with Catholicism when he was younger, by the time I had him as a teacher he had no qualms about using the Bible for cheap laughs.
I remember him doing one exercise with us where he had us write down anything we wanted anonymously on a piece of paper, then he collected them and read them to the class. I don’t remember what any of the thoughts were except for one person who said that he admired the looks of a certain girl in the class. On the subsequent round, several more people chimed in with the same comment. The girl in question was not even part of the pot smoking Upper East Side “cool kids” crowd; she was from Queens.
I remember his comments about the movie The Breakfast Club, which was in response to a positive comment about the movie made by one of the students. “It’s been done before, you just put a group of people in a room together and see what happens.” I also remember his comments about Darryl Hannah. “She’s just another tall blonde.”
Although I may have loved him as a teacher, unfortunately the admiration wasn’t returned. In fact, this is one of the few cases where my memories of him actually match what he wrote about in his books. No, he didn’t write about me directly (in fact he wrote very little about Stuyvesant High School at all in his book ‘Tis). But his book ‘Tis does leave you with the impression that he was tremendously let down by the lack of intellectual leanings on the part of his students, and I know that’s how he felt about me. That was a phase of my life when I thought The Lord of the Rings was the greatest thing ever written, and McCourt certainly didn’t think so.
The book he wanted us to read and write a senior thesis about was The Horse's Mouth by Joyce Cary. At the time, this was a kind of book that I was completely unable to get, and in fact I never finished it. More than a decade later, after reading Angela’s Ashes and ‘Tis, I decided I would try reading The Horse’s Mouth again, figuring now that I had matured I could see the greatness in the book. Unfortunately, I still couldn’t get past the first few pages. One reviewer at Amazon.com summed it up perfectly:
Unlike other reviewers I cannot praise this book. It has its moments - passages of writing that let us enter the mind of an artist - but most of it I found tedious. Being just about believable the main character is easily the best of a thin and unconvincing bunch. The novel hasn't aged well and the story line is silly and not very interesting. The humour escaped me. I haven't read the other parts of the trilogy and nothing about this book encourages me do so.
I sometimes feel bad about not being able to live up to the high intellectual standards he tried to hold us to. One day I may try to read The Horse’s Mouth again, maybe after I read Atlas Shrugged, by Ayn Rand, which has been sitting on my bookshelf unread for half a year.
I am not alone in feeling this way about Frank McCourt. I remember asking a friend of mine who also went to Stuyvesant (but whom I never knew until several years later when we were both attending the same law school) about Frank McCourt. He said he didn’t take McCourt’s class but his friend had him for a teacher and his friend didn’t like him because he found him too intimidating.
After writing the previous paragraph, a vague and distant memory suddenly surfaced of Mr. McCourt denying these accusations. “My class is not just for the brightest students, it’s for everyone.” But I think he was wrong. Only the brightest students could best appreciate him, and this being at a school that already had New York City’s cream of the crop (a fact that McCourt had a wonderful way of mocking by just saying “Stuyvesant” in a tone of awe and reverence, along with a heavy Irish Brogue).
Mr. McCourt, if you ever read this essay, I hope you see fit to forgive me for never reading The Horse’s Mouth. I read your book, and it’s a lot more famous than anything Joyce Cary ever wrote. Don’t you think it’s kind of ironic when the high school English teacher is a more important literary figure than the authors he assigns his students to read?
Read my review of Teacher Man.
posted January 20, 2004