'Ashes' Author Jokes With Crowd
One University official jokingly termed last night's event at the Graduate School of Education's "Irish Night"--and the most Irish voice there was Frank McCourt, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of the 1996 memoir Angela's Ashes.
McCourt spoke at the Askwith Education Forum at Longfellow Hall to a packed house--as well as a simulcast to an overflow audience across the street at Gutman Conference Center--that was both entranced and entertained by his jokes.
"One of these days I'm going to get my own chair," he said, referring to the new GSE chair honoring the school's dean, Jerome T. Murphy.
McCourt spoke humorously about his own British-style education in Limerick, Ireland, which abided by a strict question-and-answer format--the teacher asked and the students answered.
"If you favor the [British] Empire, don't take this personally," he said, adding that, as someone with 30 years of experience teaching, he preferred a less rigid environment.
He then spoke about his pre-teaching days, working at the Biltmore Hotel in New York, where "the Ivy League boys met the Seven Sisters girls," he said.
"All they did was go to Harvard and Princeton and places like that," he joked.
During his time in New York, McCourt also taught creative writing classes and spent much of his career at Stuyvesant High School, the city's well-known math/science magnet school.
"I had serious doubts whether I would last [as a teacher]," he said.
He added that his Irish accent helped break the ice with his students. He described the American adolescent as "an explosive creature" and later compared teens to "heat-seeking missiles"--they instinctively know which teachers are vulnerable.
But in the end, McCourt said, he spent more time learning than he did teaching.
"Most of all I learned something about the human heart," he said. "I wanted to leave my imprint on [my students]--send them to Harvard."
He noted that one of his students from Stuyvesant was in the audience. "A doctoral candidate, if you don't mind," he added.
He said he survived his childhood poverty through humor and storytelling.
"I wanted to write Angela's Ashes to show what poverty was like," he said.
He also read from the sequel to Angela's Ashes, entitled 'Tis. Afterward, many in the audience lined up to have their books signed.
Angela's Ashes, McCourt's first book, is a bestseller and garnered the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award. The book has been translated into 25 languages, and 5 million hardcover copies are in print.