08/23/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

He Showed the World Through Teachers' Eyes: Thank You, Frank McCourt

Frank McCourt, a career teacher, changed an uncountable number of lives, and so many came after his retirement from teaching.

What really goes on in classrooms--the rhythms of the school year, the cutting disappointments, the tiny, redemptive victories-- too often lives and dies in that unique classroom space. In June, the teacher and students scatter with (often well-grounded) faith that they all gained and grew from their shared experience. Then September comes again and it's another hard-fought lap around the track.

Occasionally, though, a teacher can cross over from the all-consuming teaching sphere to tell the tale to the masses. No one in recent memory did this more successfully than Frank McCourt, who passed away this week at 78.

Mr. McCourt, who toiled for nearly three decades in New York City public schools, was an irreverent and brilliant English teacher. He argued that everyone's stories had value, and that everything--even something as seemingly banal as a grocery list-- could be perceived as a work of art. His students benefited from his embracing, open-minded style, and his unbridled passion for Shakespeare.

However, perhaps Frank McCourt's greatest contribution to teaching came after he retired, when he published three autobiographical books. The first and by far most widely read and celebrated, Angela's Ashes, is a masterpiece in its own right. His recounting of growing up in dire poverty in the lanes of Limerick, Ireland is unforgettable. However, his latter two volumes, 'Tis and Teacher Man, sent authentic classroom narratives to mass audiences, a truly rare and important feat.

On the most fundamental level, learning someone's stories is the most direct path to building empathy, a resource which is always in need. Mr. McCourt's deeply personal books have contributed to filling an empathy void for teachers in a mainstream media culture that feasts on scandal and reductive stat-crunching. Too few genuine classroom narratives break through to broad audiences, but Frank McCourt bust the dam wide open. In achieving this, Mr. McCourt, while creating his works of art, performed a great service to educators, students, and parents.

His legacy of telling the teaching tale lives; he inspired me, as well as countless others, to step out of our isolated classrooms and share with the world the great human drama playing out in schools every day. The reflection demanded by the writer, and the discourse activated with the reader are important and enriching. Thank you, Mr. McCourt.

Dan Brown is a teacher in Washington, D.C. and the author of the memoir The Great Expectations School: A Rookie Year in the New Blackboard Jungle. His book would not exist without the author's reading of Frank McCourt's 'Tis during his first year teaching.

This is an NPR Fresh Air interview between Frank McCourt and Terry Gross in 1996, following the release of Angela's Ashes.