Writer McCourt was an advocate for educators

When I heard that Frank McCourt—the Irish- American writer whose novel "Angela's Ashes" spent 117 weeks on The New York Times best-seller list—died last week, what came to mind was how much I laughed after seeing him plant a big fat one on the lips of President Bush's Secretary of Education in Austin back in 2006.

McCourt was a small unassuming man a bit scruffy with a Koala bear look. So it was a bit of a surprise, after Secretary Margaret Spellings introduced him to a capacity crowd in the Texas Senate Chamber, when he wrapped his arms around Spellings' waist and embraced her like couples do at an airport and kissed her as if he were her boyfriend going back to Ireland for good.

Spellings was visibly shaken but the crowd laughed at the 76-year-old man's audacity. It was this audacity that informed his writing and made me a lifelong fan of the school teacher, turned writer and international celebrity. I bought one of the five million copies of "Angela's Ashes" that were sold in his lifetime. The autobiographical book detailed his miserable, poverty stricken life in Limerick, Ireland, with humor and wit. It was translated into 20 different languages, made into a movie starring Emily Watson, and won the Pulitzer Prize in 1997.

When he stood before us in Austin, already a wealthy man, he related a story about when he won literature's most prestigious award, effortlessly and with great comedic timing.

He said that after he got the call early in the morning from the Pulitzer committee informing him of his prize, he had asked his wife, "How does it feel to have your head on the pillow next to the head of a Pulitzer Prize winner." She said, "I'd feel much better if you'd make me some coffee."

This self-deprecating humor runs through his novels and made him a popular speaker. It also made him a favorite of many of his high school students when he taught for 30 years the New York City school system. It was his students and friends who encouraged him to write his memoir and it was published when he was 66 years old.

The two favorite themes in his books are the corruptions of organized religion and the lack of creativity in teaching. Of the latter, McCourt waxed poetic in the Senate Chamber the day I was lucky enough to hear him speak.

He said he felt that the emphasis on standardized testing discouraged teachers from truly developing students' minds. And the low pay and high workloads most teachers faced, McCourt said, guaranteed that schools would continue to be mediocre.

He also talked about the overwhelming responsibility and skill that is necessary when teaching in today's world. A subject that he covers extensively and with much humor in "Teacher Man."

"When you're sitting there with two sets of parents, a mother with a new husband and father with his new wife, you soon realize that you have more to do with Johnny than teach English literature." The crowd gave enthusiastic applause.

When that died down some one asked McCourt how teaching has changed from 30 years ago and he said in a word—technology.

"Technology has changed schools because there is a lot more plagiarizing. Kids who were poor writers to begin with suddenly wrote like Princeton professors."

He mentioned that being drafted into the Korean War and training attack dogs in the Canine Core was good preparation for his high school teaching career. He said, he "sucked the first 15 years."

He asked the audience, "When did you last see a teacher on TV? When they are having a discussion on education on CSPAN there is never a teacher on the panel. They need to have a conversation with teachers. We all know it's ridiculous to teach five classes of 25 to 30 students." In his speech he lamented: "Of the 700 seniors in my 18 years of teachering only two said they wanted to be teachers."

He said that a woman at a talk he gave asked him: "Mr. McCourt how do I get my kids to read? I told her go home and unplug the TV and throw it out the window. If it's not there they'll have to find something else to do."

I think I'll turn off my television set and pick up "Teacher Man" again so that I can laugh and learn.

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2009-07-30 digital edition

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