Frank McCourt, beloved Irish-American Pulitzer-winning author and retired schoolteacher, died today of complications relating to meningitis. He was 78. He'd been sick for quite some time after being treated for a bout with melanoma.
McCourt's childhood was, to say the least, an incredibly sad one. He grew up in utter poverty first in Brooklyn, where he was born, then in Ireland, where his family moved when he was four years-old after being unable to find work during the Great Depression. What followed were years of McCourt being surrounded by alchoholism, sickness, depression, and hunger: three of his siblings died as children, his father was always looking for work, and he was forced to quit school when he was 13 in order to take odd jobs (including some slightly criminal ones) in order to help keep what remained of his family alive. This period in his life were the foundation for his first memoirs, 1996's Angela's Ashes, which launched him to worldwide fame. It won the National Book Award, the Pulitzer Prize, and was adapted into a feature film.
McCourt moved back to Brooklyn when he was 19, where he was drafted into Military service for a short time before coming back and getting his masters degree to teach. He remained a public high school English teacher for thirty years, eventually ending up at, among other places, Manhattan's famed Stuyvesant High School, which has a pretty notable list of alumni. Much of these experiences were chronicled in his bestselling third memoir, Teacher Man. His second book, Tis, was also a bestseller; it's centered around his years emigrating his family back to America after the events chronicled in Angela's Ashes.
McCourt's survived by a daughter and a granddaughter. The man has far too many good quotes to pull from, but the LA Times sufficent obituary pulled a pretty good one that's very telling of his success story: a guy who found his fame in his later years, and was revered worldwide for it:
"We were all storytellers growing up," McCourt said of his family in a 2000 interview with the Toronto Sun. "That's all we had. There was no TV or radio. We'd sit around the fire and make up stories. My dad was a great storyteller. We'd mention a neighbor, and he'd make up a story.
"But I also had to be a great storyteller to survive teaching. I spent 30 years in the classroom. When you stand before 170 teenagers each day, you have to get and keep their attention. Their attention span is about seven minutes, which is the time between commercials. So you have to stay on your toes.
And then there's this one, from a New York Times op-ed McCourt wrote about teaching creative writing to high-schoolers:
They wanted to know why I was asking such crazy questions. I told them to figure it out for themselves. The last thing a writer needs is answers — the end of thought and the dream. But I could have told them what they sensed already: they were beginning to notice what they had previously taken for granted, ritual or the lack of it, the dance of the family dinner.
Where are the dreams and fantasies of childhood? The heads of adolescents are clogged with media images and sounds. The teacher, then, is the Knight or Fair Maid of the Imagination and the battle lines are drawn. Pull the plug, cut off the juice, let the batteries die. Just sit there and dream.
And when in doubt, tell a story.