Despite these life lessons, immaturity often took center stage in my stories. A spiteful take on Poe’s ”House of Usher,” entitled ”The Fall of the House of Weinstein,” received a well-deserved 70. A boy travels to a grimy, boarded-up building on a desolate Harlem block where his grandparents, the last Jewish residents in the neighborhood, reside. As he walks in, his insane grandmother asks him to cover her as she breathes her last, lying beside the grandfather, who has already been dead a week. Her last words: ”Don’t call an ambulance. Let me stay … with my house!”
Mr. McCourt’s comments filled the back page: ”My dear old Jonathan: You have a great deal of intellectual imaginative and spiritual energy. But you are a slob! You’re a disgrace to yourself. In your smart-alecky way, you still betray a sensitivity to people. Now, Jonathan, settle down and — THINK. Your friend, The Teacher”
Our weekly creative writing assignments provided an opportunity for me to rail against what I saw as an oppressive, needlessly competitive school establishment. One such story was a classic subversive teenage fantasy. The character, Greenberg, gets a 65 in economics from ”the almighty holiness and judge of academic standing Mr. Lama,” who had determined that, despite participating in class more than anyone else and knowing the subject (though not the test answers), ”the pleasure of my company could be valued at 65.” Thirsting for revenge, Greenberg hides in the school with a can of gasoline until after closing, then breaks into Stuyvesant’s student records office. He douses the files of 2,700 students. ”The files went up in an array of heat, flame and smoke. It was a beautiful sight. When they grow older, they’ll thank me, I knew.” Outside the burning building, Greenberg phones the firemen, and when a cop asks whether he had set the fire, replies, ”The fire has been set for many years. It was just a matter of someone lighting the match.”
Instead of calling the nearest law enforcement office, Mr. McCourt mixed understanding with a positive review. He called it an ”excellent last line” and gave me a 95. He wrote, ”Skillful narrative, energetic, lively. Dostoyevskian (in a way). Much of your writing is based in hostility. I wish you’d branch out.”
It was not until the last term of senior year that I began writing from the heart. It took a long time before I was willing to expose my life to an audience. While I had been reading my hostile fantasies out loud to classmates during previous terms, I had been mostly interested in feeling clever. Suddenly, the readings became a sort of confessional. It was probably the most transformational process of my adolescence. Every week, I would summon the courage to take my life public and would chronicle my emotions in front of 30 fellow students. Gradually, instead of lashing out, my stories began to look inward, expressing the raw, desperate melodrama that is teenage life.
The last story I read to the class, appropriately titled ”Jonathan Greenberg,” was a dialogue between myself and a ”voice that blazed through the darkness.” In the end, blood poured from pinpricks over my entire body and the voice, along with Mr. McCourt and my two closest friends, laughed while I cried.
What I remember most is the feeling of baring my soul: the terror of standing in front of Mr. McCourt and my classmates, tears streaming down my face as I awaited their feedback, Room 205 soundless and still.
The following week, a classmate I barely knew dropped a note on my desk. She wrote: ”I can still see you standing there, with your cowboy hat and your big brown eyes, pouring out your heart to the class. I wanted to reach out to you, to tell you that what you had to say was important, at least to me. But I didn’t.* Everything you read was personal. You wanted to share it, and you really cared how we felt about it. So when the class criticized you, it hurt. To tell you the truth, I thought that what you wrote was pretty raunchy. But I’m glad you read it anyway, because I know you didn’t read it for effect. For some strange reason, everything you have read has had an effect on me. So I want to share my feelings with you, and to thank you for being one of the few people who really care. But most of all, I just want to tell you that I think you’re beautiful.”
It made me feel wonderful to read that letter, and perhaps it made her feel wonderful to discover the courage to write it.
When it came to teaching us to express ourselves, Mr. McCourt was a master therapist. I became a writer that year, and have remained one ever since.