McCourt charms, inspires during Q&A session

Pulitzer Prize-winning author Frank McCourt drew plenty of laughs while discussing his teaching career, his writing and how his life has changed since the publication of his bestselling first book, "Angela's Ashes," during a question-and-answer session Feb. 13 in Whitley Auditorium. Details...

A photo of frank mccourtMcCourt is on campus to deliver the Baird Pulitzer Prize Lecture
Tuesday evening. The former New York City public school teacher
marveled at the attention he has received since “Angela’s Ashes,” his
highly acclaimed memoir, was published in 1999.

“I’m not here because I was a teacher. Teachers are never invited
anywhere,” McCourt said. The audience broke out in laughter as he
recalled being summoned back to New York from Boston to appear on the
Today show with then-host Katie Couric.

“When you’re on the Today show, they send a car to pick you up,”
McCourt said. “When I was a teacher, they wouldn’t send a donkey for

McCourt said his writing style was largely influenced by his 27 years
as a teacher, many times teaching students for whom English was a
foreign language. “I had to learn to speak simply and clearly. I
understood their frustrations; I had empathy for them.”

In the classroom, McCourt said every teacher has to find their passion and learn how to keep students’ attention.

“I’ve spoken to middle school, high school and college kids, and if you
can hold their attention, you can appear before the Spanish
Inquisition,” McCourt said to laughter. “I wasn’t too much for grades
and being strict. After all, it was a creative writing class. What are
you going to do in a creative writing class? Tell them, ‘Shut up and

He says he feels an obligation to raise the profile of the teaching profession in America, which he says is held in low esteem.

“Teaching is the most significant profession of all because it colors
the future. I’d say to young people, do it, because you’ll never be
bored. They might drive you into the loony bin, but you’ll never be

When asked what he considers as essential ingredients for a good
teacher, McCourt said kindness, compassion, commitment and passion are
vital. For aspiring young teachers, “the key to (teaching) is to find
what you love and do it,” McCourt said. “You have to enjoy it. This is
a dangerous thing to say, but don’t worry so much about the kids. Worry
about what you like. When you find what you love, the kids are fine.”

McCourt was asked what he thought about professionals coming into
teaching from the private sector. “Very few people do it and survive.
They don’t realize that you’re ‘on’ all day. I think nobody understands
it’s the toughest, hardest profession of all.”

McCourt said there is a simple reason why his writing style developed later in life than other notable writers.

“I’ve been thinking a lot about writers like Faulkner and Hemingway,”
McCourt said. “They worked at it. They started early in life and they
worked and worked and worked at it. I didn’t start until later in life
because I was teaching.”

One of the final questions McCourt was asked was about a moment he was most proud of.

“The first thing I wanted to do was to write a book, and the second
thing was to write this book, ‘Angela’s Ashes.’ The day it was
published, a messenger brought it to my door, in an envelope. That
moment was like having your first-born child. It had to be like Sir
Edmund Hillary climbing Everest. It was the one thing I wanted to do in
life, and I did it.”