Former students recall McCourt’s lasting influence

By Albert Amateau

A generation of writers who attended Frank McCourt’s English classes at Stuyvesant High School — then on E. 15th St — were harking back to their adolescence this week and thinking about McCourt, who died on Sunday at the age of 78.

They were remembering his stories, his brogue and his way of making them write about themselves as vulnerable teenagers. Many of their remarks are online on Facebook/ Hail and Farewell, Stuy HS Student Tribute.

Jonathan Greenberg, a writer and former Village resident who now lives in Sonoma County, California, was a Stuyvesant student of McCourt’s for four terms from 1974 to 1976.

“He was by far the teacher who influenced me the most,” he told The Villager in a telephone interview. “There was no sense of censorship in his class — nothing was taboo. And he had tremendous respect for each of us. He changed the way we looked at our lives and made us care about one another and about ourselves. It was so personal for McCourt.”

Greenberg recalled there were as many as 35 students in McCourt’s creative writing class and each student would submit a story.

“They would come back to us with comments sometimes covering the pages,” Greenberg said.

McCourt told his students not to be afraid of criticism and to be proud of publishers’ rejection slips.

“He encouraged us to plaster our walls with rejection slips,” Greenberg recalled.

Elizabeth Kadetsky, a writer and teacher who now lives around the corner from the old Stuyvesant High School building on 15th St., was a McCourt student in every semester except one of her high school years in the early 1980s.

“He taught regular high school English, creative writing and Irish literature, so you could take his classes for three or four years,” she said.

McCourt classes were a family tradition for Kadetsky. Her older sister had taken a McCourt class, she noted.

“Connor McCourt, Frank’s nephew, was in our class. It was a family of sorts,” she said.

“I don’t know if anyone else mentioned it, but he was a refuge for misfits,” Kadetsky added. “I felt like I was the only alienated person in the world and he created a haven for me — for all of us. It was the ’80s and Stuyvesant could be a very mean place, a cutthroat environment. But Frank wasn’t like that at all. Other teachers would tell us we were the best and smartest in the city and we should be focused on success, but Frank didn’t talk like that.”

McCourt was also a tough and demanding teacher, Kadetsky said.

“We weren’t always sure of his approval. He could be moody, unpredictable and cruel,” she said. “On the last day of school one term he came in with a stack of our term papers in his arms. ‘Here are your papers. They’re dreck.

They’re awful,’ he said. And he tore them up and tossed them into the wastebasket.”

But he could charm his classes with stories — and song, she added.

“He would pass out mimeograph copies of Irish drinking songs and folk songs and he would sing them. He was such a wonderful storyteller. When ‘Angela’s Ashes’ came out in 1996 it was like I was reading the book for the second time with those wonderful oral cadences,” Kadetsky said.

McCourt was born in Brooklyn, raised in Limerick, Ireland, and emigrated back to New York. He went to New York University’s School of Education, which later became the Steinhardt School of Culture, Education and Human Development, and graduated in 1957 with a B.S. in English education. He did post-graduate work at Brooklyn College and then joined the New York City school system. He taught first in 1958 at McKee High School on Staten Island and came to Stuyvesant in 1972.

After he retired in 1987 he began writing and published the memoir of his youth, “Angela’s Ashes,” nine years later, winning the Pulitzer Prize. Two subsequent memoirs, “’Tis” (1999) and “Teacher Man” (2005), followed. He was awarded an honorary doctor of letters by N.Y.U. in 2000.

He is survived by his brothers, Malachy, Alphie and Mike, his wife, Ellen Frey, his daughter, Maggie McCourt, and three grandchildren. A public memorial service will be held in September, probably at Symphony Space, Broadway at 95th St., and will be announced later.