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McCourt on his teaching days at a Staten Island vocational school

Frank McCourt, who died on Sunday, spent three decades teaching in the New York City schools before becoming an internationally renowned author.

McCourt began his career in 1958 in a vocational school, and moved on to Stuyvesant High School in 1972. Administrators at Samuel Gompers Vocational High School in the Bronx and William E. Grady Vocational High School in Brooklyn turned him away because his Irish accent was too thick.

During his first few months at Ralph R. McKee Vocational High School in Staten Island, McCourt felt caught between two models of teaching. There were the old-timers, he wrote, who were veterans of World War II and considered students “the enemy.” Then were the new teachers, who had read John Dewey and wanted to meet the students’ “felt needs.” Uncomfortable with both strategies, McCourt taught in his own idiosyncratic style, to mixed reviews.

From his second book, ‘Tis:

They don’t want to read and they don’t want to write. They say, Aw, Mr. McCourt, all these English teachers want us to write about dumb things like our summer vacation or the story of our life. Boring. Every year since our first grade we write the story of our life and teachers just give us a check mark and they say, Very Nice.

In the English classes they’re cowed by the mid-term test with its multiple choice questions on spelling, vocabulary, grammar and reading comprehension. When I hand out the tests in Economic Citizenship there is muttering. There are hard words against Miss Mudd and how her ship should hit a rock and she should become fish food. I tell them, Do your best, and I’ll be reasonable with report card grades, but there is a coldness and resentment in the room as if I had betrayed them by forcing this test on them.

Miss Mudd saves me. While my classes are taking the mid-term test I explore the closets at the back of the room and find them stuffed with old grammar books, newspapers, Regents exams and hundreds of pages of uncorrected student compositions going back to 1942. I’m about to dump everything in the trash till I start reading the old compositions. The boys back then yearned to fight, to avenge the deaths of brothers, friends, neighbors…

…I pile the crumbling papers on my desk and begin reading to my classes. They sit up. There are familiar names. Hey, that was my father. He was wounded in Africa. Hey, that was my Uncle Sal that was killed in Guam.

When I read the essays aloud there are tears. Boys run from the room to the toilets and return red-eyed. Girls weep openly and console one another.

Dozens of Staten Island and Brooklyn families are named in these papers so brittle we worry they’ll fall apart. We want to save them and the only way is to copy them by hand, the hundreds still stacked in the closets.

No one objects. We are saving the immediate past of immediate families. Everyone has a pen and all through the rest of the term, April till the end of June, they decipher and write. Tears continue and there are outbursts. This is my father when he was fifteen. This is my aunt and she died when she was having a baby.

They are suddenly interested in compositions with the title, My Life, and I want to say, See what you can learn about your fathers and uncles and aunts? Don’t you want to write about your lives for the next generation?

But I let it pass. I don’t want to interfere with a room so quiet Mr. Sorola has to investigate. He walks around the room, looks at what the class is doing and says nothing. I think he’s grateful for the silence.

In June I give everyone a passing grade, thankful I’ve survived my first months of teaching in a vocational high school, though I wonder what I would have done without the crumbling compositions.

I might have had to teach.

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