“When I look back on our teaching days I wonder how we managed to survive at all. It was of course, a miserable career: the happy career is hardly worth your while. Worse than the ordinary miserable teaching career is the miserable high school teaching career, and worse yet is the miserable New York public high school teaching career.”
This is how I’d imagine a Frank McCourt memoir about our teaching days together at Stuyvesant High School might begin.
We used to meet in the hallway near the principal’s office—Frank shuttling off to his fifth-period creative-writing class and me to my junior journalism students.
We’d stop and chat, exchanging tales of woe—like two inmates in the prison cafeteria before afternoon kitchen duty—but I’d always linger longer than I would with the other teachers because with Frank you knew you’d get a fun story, a fresh insight or a provocative question that would relieve the numbing grind for the rest of the day.
Even then, Frank was recognized as a gifted storyteller by his students and colleagues who would listen raptly in the classroom or huddle around him at the bar as he regaled us with his now-famous epic tales of childhood misery.
To many of us, it wasn’t a question of if, but when, Frank’s talent would reveal itself to the world outside of East 15th Street and First Avenue.
Foreshadowing: at a Stuyvesant student awards ceremony, Jerzy (Being There) Kosinski offhandedly told McCourt that he, too, would make it one day.
“Yeah, but when?” said Frank.
During one of our impromptu chats in the hallway, Frank became animated when I told him I was the child of Holocaust survivors. “So, you think you’d ever marry a non-Jew?” he asked.
“No,” I remember answering quite definitively. “It would betray all the suffering my family has experienced.”
Frank told me he was intrigued by the whole question of intermarriage; two of his brothers, Malachy and Alphie, good ol’ lapsed Irish Catholics, were, at one time or another, married to Jewish women.
“It reminds me of what my mother, the late Angela McCourt, once complained about,” he said in the endearing brogue of his. “There’s notin’ in this family but Protestants and Jews, Jews and Protestants. God above, every time I cross the floor I’m trippin’ over little Protestants and Jews.”
I strolled on to my classroom grinning.
At my wedding, about four years later, I was reminded of the comment I made to Frank about never marrying a non-Jew. Technically, I had kept my vow; my Presbyterian-born bride had converted to Judaism, but the twinkle in Frank’s eye when I told him about my fiancée spoke volumes.
When the time came for toasts, a few close friends from college followed my brother up to the podium, and then a British fellow who worked with my wife. Right after he made his brief remarks, Frank sauntered to the microphone.
“I wasn’t planning on making a toast, but when I saw an Englishman get up here—and since they’ve oppressed the Irish for hundreds of years—I knew I couldn’t leave it at that…”
He got the crowd going with that. The rest of his discursive comments are a bit foggy in my memory—except a George Bernard Shaw quote that he cited as an admonition: “Marriage is popular because it combines the maximum of temptation with the maximum of opportunity.”
When Frank’s comments went on a bit longer than the Englishman who preceded him, the Brit heckled, “Shaw also said, ‘All the world’s a stage…unfortunately.’”
Frank’s toast is the one highlight missing from the wedding video. I never bothered to check if the guy we hired went to the john and missed it or if in his seemingly indiscriminate editing, he decided for some reason to slice it.
I guess it’s hard to blame him because, after all, it was 1993, three years before Angela’s Ashes appeared, four years before the Pulitzer Prize and six years before the movie premiere and long awaited sequel, ’Tis, that would continue to burnish the Frank McCourt legend.
One old high school friend kidded me that if I had that toast on videotape I could probably sell it to a TV newsmagazine or auction it on eBay, at the very least.
I miss those chance meetings in the hallway with Frank between classes. He had moved to the Upper West Side, not far from where I live, but I’d only run into him once or twice in the past few years.
We spoke every few months, when I could catch him at home between book tours, lectures, writing conferences, interviews, book parties, charity events and other demands on his time. It was a vicarious thrill to see his name pop up everywhere and to see that sometimes in life talent does win out in the end.
“I’m a beacon of hope to all geriatrics,” Frank once told me. “Don’t give up, you can keep doing it into your 70s, practically your 80s.” And sometimes listening to him talk about teaching, you realize that in spite of society’s view, it is a noble calling. At least in Frank’s case, it worked out for the best.
“Whatever I know about writing I learned from teaching,” he said. “They kept asking me questions and provoked me to tell stories, and in return I would provoke them to tell stories. The interaction was very fruitful.”
So wasn’t it a great profession altogether?
Tom Allon is president and CEO of Manhattan Media. He taught at Stuyvesant High School with Frank McCourt from 1986 to 1987.
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