20 Great Interviews:
Brian Rohan, Contibutor
October / November 2005
Frank McCourt went from retired New York City high school teacher to international celebrity in a matter of months with the publication of Angela ‘s Ashes, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Biography.
Frank managed to save the fare for a boat to America by the age of 19, the point at which Angela’s Ashes finishes. He arrived in New York City by ship, on the eve of the Korean War. The young Irish kid was drafted into the U.S. Army and sent on a troop ship to Hamburg, West Germany, where he recalls a gruff-voiced drill sergeant handed out the assignments:
“McCourt, what’s the first thing you do with a dog?”
“Er…. Feed him, sir.”
“No, McCourt. The first thing you do with a dog is let him know who’s master.”
With that, Frank found out that he would be spending the Korean War training German shepherds.
“They figured, hey — he’s Irish, so it must be animals or agriculture,” McCourt recalls. “But of course I was from the slums of Limerick, I knew absolutely nothing about animals. They gave me six weeks of training and then they gave me my own dog. Then I became a trainer of dog trainers. Surrounded by dogs. And to this day, I hate the things.”
McCourt returned to New York where he joined a generation of young men suddenly able to change its situation through the G.I. Bill.
“Every day of my life I say, ‘Thank Christ the Chinese invaded Korea,'” he says. “It was a terrible thing to do on the Koreans, but it was one of the best things that ever happened to Frank McCourt.”
The Army vet went to New York University and read voraciously: novels, histories, plays, poetry — whatever he got his hands on. He supported himself by working at Merchants’ Refrigeration in lower Manhattan.
“On a hot, horrible day you’d be taking these sides of beef off refrigerator trucks from Chicago out into New York and 95 degrees and into the deep freeze room, then back out into New York and 95 degrees and back into the refrigerator trucks, and so on. From an early point, I realized I was always going to be too scrawny [for the work], so I kept reading.”
McCourt qualified as a teacher and began work at a tough, public vocational school on Staten Island.
“That was in the days of Blackboard Jungle” says McCourt, referring to the 1959 film about rebellious and gang crazy school kids and the post-war phenomenon of ‘teenagers.’
“They were poor kids who were told from an early age they were stupid, so they were sent to vocational school. Naturally, I decided to teach them Shakespeare.
“The other teachers thought I was crazy. ‘Shakespeare?’ they’d say, They’ll kill ya.’ All they had in the school were these dreary old novels, books like Silas Marner. The dirty old man book, the kids called it.”
McCourt bought a box of $1.65 Shakespeare collections — with his own money — and handed them out to a classroom of 35 skeptics. McCourt says the students were soon converted.
“They loved it” says McCourt. “There was no analysis or any of that, we just started reading out loud. We got to Hamlet and they’d heard of it, they knew it was this famous or important play. They’d start reading these soliloquies in a big, theatrical voice, you know, ‘To be or not to be….’
“I’d say No, no no — didja ever worry about life or didja ever feel depressed? That’s the way it is — just talk it. They began to understand what Shakespeare was up to.” ♦