It was founded in 1904, and is one of nine “Specialized” High Schools in New York City (for “specialized” read Elite- back in the day there were only five on that list). As opposed to the majority of Public Schools in the city, you had to take exams to be admitted into one of these schools. And the exams were hard and long. It boasted a College Preparatory curriculum which necessitated taking classes in English, History, Biology, Chemistry and Physics. Let me stop here for a moment to state what is already obvious to some – the sciences are not one of my strong suits, so right there you have a problem or rather I did. But one would never dream of not going to a school with such a reputation, held in such high academic esteem, especially after passing all those exams when a lot of your friends didn’t.
When I went there it was located on Fifteenth Street on the East Side; it now has a brand new building on Chambers Street in Lower Manhattan. The list of graduates is as varied as it is impressive: Tim Robbins, Thelonious Monk, Eric Holder, James Cagney…it goes on and on. So, once accepted, I was going. And if you actually made it the whole way, graduation was held at Carnegie Hall, an event that made it on the social calendar of the city each year.
I would ride a New York City Transit bus from Ninth Avenue to First Avenue back and forth each day, and that was kind of cool – we were issued bus passes so we could travel at will. But I must say all in all, I didn’t really enjoy High School; there were bullies of the physical sort, and the same of the intellectual persuasion that looked down on you if you didn’t catch on to nuclear fission right off; bunch of snobs they were, but I am sure all those snobs are doing a whole lot better in life than I am right now. So be it. I (like Don) failed one course and like him it was a science course. For me, it was Biology; I never could get the importance of learning the inner organs of some poor frog splayed out on a tray in front of you. I couldn’t have cared less; would have rather had a live frog to take care of than those sorry animals that died for nothing. Let’s face it, how many of us have put to good, practical use, the knowledge we gained of the digestive system of a frog? Like I said, I wasn’t a science guy, though I did love Physics (practical) and excelled at that one particular science class.
I was, and am, a History and Literature guy, and the one shining grace of my time there, was English class. And that’s because one of my teachers, for two terms was Mr. Frank McCourt. Now this was before he went on to write the Pulitzer Prize winning memoir Angela’s Ashes, a heartbreaking and beautiful story of loss, tragedy and love (highly recommended if somehow you missed it). And of course before he wrote two follow ups, both equally admired: Tis and Teacher Man, the last one about his time teaching at Stuyvesant, and mentioning people I knew. This was the man before fame; a wonderful raconteur who could tell a story that would keep you so mesmerized you didn’t know the class ended; you in fact didn’t want it to end. We would follow him after class, ignoring the next one we were scheduled for because we wanted to hear more of his life in Ireland, the Troubles, his passage to America and how he would up standing in front of us, giving us this wonderful stuff as a part of an English requirement. These were days when there weren’t so many rules about sticking to the curriculum, and he would go off just telling stories to illustrate a theme from one of the novels we were required to read and eventually got around to. He was in good part why I fell in love with the idea of being a writer; to be able to weave time and substance into real words on a page is a powerful magic, it takes tons of talent, some learned, some not but mostly hard work. Mr. McCourt could write. And Mr. McCourt could teach. A rare combination, even for Stuyvesant.
He was not alone of course, There was Mrs. Dahlberg, a heavy smoker which gave her voice a lush deep quality as she did every year cover the granddaddy of them all, novel-wise, Moby Dick. She was able to bring to life a work finished in the 1850’s and make it seem relevant and important to us as kids of the 1970’s. She knew how to teach too. She convinced us all that Moby Dick was the greatest American novel ever written up to that point in history. And in my opinion, it still is (she would be so happy to hear me say that). So you get an idea of the caliber of the English Department; it attracted rare talent.
Anyway back to Mr. McCourt. He was Irish, in case you missed that, and didn’t have too many good things to say about some other members of the United Kingdom who shall go nameless here. He also wasn’t afraid to embrace those generalizations of his people; nay in fact he reveled in them. He loved to drink and told us so. You couldn’t go wrong with a bottle of Irish Whiskey and a pen and paper he’d say; that’s where genius is born (he was right by the way, even if you substitute Bourbon). These were the days when a teacher could inject his or her own opinions into a class. I am not too sure you could do that today, without some irate parent demanding you be fired for trying to corrupt their kid (who let’s face it, probably would love to be corrupted).
One of our favorite days was the day after St. Patrick’s Day, when we knew Mr.McCourt would be late, and we all knew why. He would eventually arrive, holding a great big glass of Ginger Ale to settle his stomach, dressed in his usual turtleneck and corduroy jacket and he would look at us, as we smiled knowingly and he would smile and just say “What the fuck are you looking at?” We loved it. He was a real person standing in front of us, not a teacher bound by the norms of his profession. And that made him a better teacher. That is not to say he wasn’t professional. He knew literature, and he loved the written word, and wanted us to know it and love it too. He changed many a young life for the better.
Years later when Teacher Man was published, I wrote to him, thanking him for what he had given me. I never heard back and honestly didn’t expect to. Sometimes you don’t need to be heard, you just need to listen. I realized he taught way more than English in those classrooms, way more valuable lessons about life and survival.
In some circles even now when you say you went to Stuyvesant, people will be impressed, after all it was and is one of the best High Schools in the country, ranked that way each year. But when you add that you were there when Frank McCourt was teaching and you were lucky enough to have him for English, well that’s when the person listening (if they have an ounce of brains in their head) offers to buy you a drink get you to stay a while, so you can tell the stories you heard, from the man himself.
So Thank You, Stuyvesant High School and especially Mr. McCourt. And wherever you are Mr. McCourt, I want you to know when those moments happen, and they are increasingly rare – no one reads anymore – and I am sitting at a bar, and I have suitably impressed the person I am with, with my erudite education and pure luck to having been in your class, I always make sure I order a Jameson or a Macallan in your honor.
Cheers Teacher Man; you were the best of the best.