Several years ago at a dinner party, each of us described how our families were persecuted in their original homeland. A Chinese friend described the treatment by the Japanese during WWII. A Korean had her own stories of suffering during the same era. Our Jewish friends ticked off one pogrom after another. Then it was my turn, “I’m Irish Protestant, I’m the oppressor!”
My great uncle was the pastor of a large Presbyterian Church in Belfast, so it’s no surprise where my family stood on the Irish conflict. But, I’m three generations away and tend towards questioning rather than accepting. When I studied Irish history here’s what I found: bombings, terrorism, oppression, discrimination, hate, hate, and more hate. To a Southern California girl it all felt very distant. And then Frank McCourt wrote Angela’s Ashes. Frank put a face on the suffering of a country stuck in a cycle of vindictiveness. We can study the facts of the conflict for the rest of our lives, but Frank showed how it feels for an ordinary family to live it. If I were teaching a history class, his book would be required reading.
Most of us experienced Frank McCourt as a writer, but a few thousand lucky Stuyvesant High School students learned creative writing from him (can you imagine?). We have a silent partner on Bookstore People, Colin Summers is our computer genius who keeps the blog going while Claire and I write away. Truth be told, we can hardly find our blog e-mail without Colin’s help. Colin was one of Frank’s students and wrote a moving memorial of him on Vanity Fair Online. Colin shares Frank’s humor and his incredible memory, plus you’ll learn how Colin’s first girlfriend dumped him.
After reading the comments on the NYT’s McCourt article, Claire and I have a new favorite McCourt quote sent in from a former student, Peter A. Geiger:
Frank McCourt was my English teacher in my senior year at Stuyvesant (class of ‘74). He introduced us to African literature such as Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, which sounded even more dramatic in his thick brogue.
When one student asked why we should read this book, what possible use would it be to us in our lives, he answered, “You will read it for the same reason your parents waste their money on your piano lessons. So you won’t be a boring little shite the rest of your life.”
It was the most honest answer to such a question I ever heard from any teacher. Whenever the question came to my head about any subject thereafter I fondly remembered Mr. McCourt and resolved not to be a boring little shite.
The perfect way to memorialize Frank McCourt–try not to be a boring little shite.