Joel Moscowitz’s unpunctuated comments and grade of 75 were typical of the student responses I received: ”Grammar horrible even worse than mine a lot of errors….” More telling than my paper or the comments, however, was my response to them. For posterity, I attached a note to the composition and comments that read: ”We were to write a composition for my creative writing class and nine people would grade and comment on it. From these comments, I support my views of the patheticness of the marking system and the theory that most men (and women) are created idiots. They spoke of handwriting and spelling, without making any comment on the content.”
Smart-aleck 16-year-olds like me were often insufferable. But Mr. McCourt kept at it, assignment after assignment, commenting on more than 150 papers every week.
His ”write a modern fairy tale” assignment resulted in one of the first stories I wrote that had a point to it as I managed, finally, to plan and develop an idea. In ”Alice in Learning Land,” Alice skips merrily into Stuyvesant, curious about what game we are playing. She joins us in the game of School, and sits in on the math class of an ugly malcontent named Trout (as in Kilgore Trout — I was reading Vonnegut at the time). When Trout is scolded by the teacher for not having his math homework, he looks to his classmates for support, but none are there for him, except Alice, who kisses him on the forehead. Mr. McCourt wasted no time getting to the point. ”Despite the title, this is not about Alice: it’s about the ‘ugly’ boy. And it’s promising. But, oh boy, do you need to discipline your writing. You must organize your stuff. Do you keep a notebook? 85.”
I was encouraged, and started a notebook of school trips, my after-school job, street crime, growing old, my recently deceased grandfather and, eventually, my favorite teacher. This quote struck me as worth recording: ”Sex is like good food — you do it because you feel like it.’ Frank McCourt, Dec. 11, 1974, in English class.” I imagine the comment was in response to some misconstrued remark one of us had made about sex.
Mr. McCourt insisted we read — Rabelais, H.L. Mencken, Aretino, Mary McCarthy, the Bible. Shakespeare was complemented with Tom Stoppard’s ”Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead,” ”Beowulf” with John Gardner’s modern sequel, ”Grendel.” Later, on reading ”’Tis,” I was struck by how similar his admonitions were to those he had received 25 years earlier, fresh off the boat, from a Third Avenue pub owner, Tim Costello, who banished him until he had read Samuel Johnson.
Sometimes Mr. McCourt would read particularly eloquent passages of text to the class, making the words sing. At other times, he made no attempt to conceal his frustration with us. On one handwritten story I submitted, he circled every crossed-out word and threw it back to me, gradeless, with the comment, ”I refuse to read any more sloppy manuscripts. Sloppy.” Every few months, he would saunter to the front of the class and announce that he was just too fed up to teach. He would then challenge one of us to take his place: ”I’m tired of playing zookeeper. Who wants to teach the class today?”
One diatribe was on the importance of doing one special thing for ourselves every day, to appreciate the moment. ”Walk through the park, take a detour, help a blind person across the street, buy yourself a pint of ice cream and eat the whole thing by yourself.” That night, I bought a pint of Hagen-Dazs coffee ice cream and ate the whole thing by myself. I had never eaten anything so delicious! I began treating myself to special walks, to random acts of kindness, to opening my eyes when I might have otherwise been on automatic pilot. And it worked: I began developing a sense of appreciation.