While his books captivated millions of readers around the world, Frank McCourt, who died Sunday after a recent health battle, spent the earlier part of his life enthralling a smaller but no less impressionable group of people: his students in the New York City public school system, where he taught for 30 years.
It was when the Brooklyn-born, Ireland-raised McCourt reached his 60s that he decided to put memories of his impossibly impoverished childhood in Limerick — and his mother Angela — to paper, and the result was "Angela's Ashes," published in 1996 to acclaim and awards, including the Pulitzer and the National Book Award. In 2005, his "Teacher Man" affectionately chronicled his hurdles and triumphs as a teacher.
Now, his former pupils are returning the favor, remembering McCourt as "a legend in the halls," according to a woman who identifies herself only as Nicole on a New York Times blog dedicated exclusively to remembering the 78-year-old author.
"I still remember the first day of English class, and the only time Mr. McCourt assigned us a book to read for the entire term," recalls another graduate of McCourt's, Agatha Ariola. "'You will read, Thomas Wolfe's 'You Can't Go Home Again,'' he had said in a melodic accent that I, a sheltered, first-generation Asian-American, found so refreshing from the harsh Queens accent I often heard on the 45-minute subway commute to Stuyvesant HS."
As Ariola further recalls, "Class was 40 minutes of storytelling by this wonderfully gifted and engaging author, and I was encouraged to write from my own voice as a child of immigrant parents. Although my creative writing is now mostly kept in my journals for personal reading, Mr. McCourt left me with the legacy and appreciation of family, and the desire to go out into the world and seek the experiences that create memories."
Public memorial planned
In terms of his teaching style, McCourt "laughed and sneered, entertained and enthralled me and 30 other kids, says "Diane," from the class of 1986. "We read 'You Can't Go Home Again' and 'My Papa's Waltz,' wrote children's stories, sang songs and assigned ourselves our own grades (0-100). His writings truly capture the magic of his classroom. He was a good soul and will be missed."
As another legend, veteran New York newspaper columnist Jimmy Breslin, put it to the Daily News for its Monday editions: ""He never hurt another human being that I know of. This guy was real from the go. And so he's a real loss to the city because there's nobody with his backbone to replace him."
McCourt's students — and his other fans — will have a chance to pay him tribute at a pubic memorial, being planned for September, says younger brother Malachy McCourt.