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Ed. Magazine

As Luck Would Have It

Timothy McCarthy on his humble roots, talking too much, and the many ways he hit the jackpot
Tim McCarthy's photo shoot in the woods
Photos: Brad Trent

Everyone, says Ed School Lecturer Timothy Patrick McCarthy, has a story that is important to tell and share. 

“I believe that deeply,” he says from his office in Gutman stuffed with photos, books, and tchotchkes. 

McCarthy’s story starts in 1971, the year he was given up by his birth parents as a newborn in upstate New York and taken in by Michelle and “Coach Mac,” a young couple looking to adopt. McCarthy calls them the “jackpot parents” — and the start of the good luck he feels he’s carried throughout his life. 

“I really do think that the through line for me with all of the things in my life that bring me joy and affirmation is that I just feel very, very lucky as a human being,” he says. “And my family is the first stroke of luck. That’s what set me flowing.” It’s why he doesn’t spend much energy pondering the “what ifs,” like searching for his birth parents. 

“I’m not interested in that at all,” he says. “And I haven’t ever wanted to. I got super lucky. My parents are amazing.” Both passionate public school educators (for a combined 79 years), his parents, now retired, moved to Cape Cod to be closer to Provincetown, where McCarthy lives with his husband, C.J. Crowder, ED.M.’02. 

As McCarthy talks about his family and upbringing, he says he’s still surprised every day that he went to Harvard as an undergrad and now teaches at the university, having joined the Ed School in 2021 after a long stint at both the college and the Kennedy School. 

“I do not come from a fancy background,” he says. “I come from blue collar, hardworking folk and teachers. When I say I come from humble roots, I really do mean that. We’re not fancy folks. My mother once joked that we’re probably not fit for polite company. We laugh at the old adage: Never talk about religion or politics at the dinner table. That’s all we talked about. And sports.” 

Growing up, McCarthy went to the elementary school where his mother taught and to the high school where his father taught and coached (including the championship basketball team McCarthy played for). He remembers how much his mother read to him, especially Judy Blume, one of their favorites, and books with diverse characters and misfits. In high school, he would put his finished homework on the kitchen table when he went to bed and find it there in the morning, marked up. 

“When I came down for breakfast, there were edits and sometimes more work to do,” he says. His parents were lovingly tough, and education was at the center of everything the family did. “But it wasn’t just about what I was doing in school. It was this larger kind of education that was everywhere around us all the time. Always ideas, opinions, questions, debates. And I was included in all of it from the very, very beginning. There was never a time that I needed to earn my way to the big kids’ table.”

His parents were busy educators, which turned out to be another important through line for McCarthy — it gave him the opportunity to spend lots of time with his grandparents, especially his grandmothers, whom he talked about this past May when he gave the student-selected faculty Convocation speech to Ed School 2023 graduates. 

“In addition to being a grateful son and glowing uncle, I am also a Grandma’s Boy,” he said during the speech. On one side was Grandma McCarthy, his father’s mother, an “Eleanor Roosevelt kind of figure” who had been a trailblazing teacher and department chair at a high school about 45 minutes north of New York City. “She was a very formidable, forceful person,” he says. “Deeply loving and wonderful, but she was tough and strong.” 

And in many ways, she was also his first teacher. 

“My parents were both teaching at the time, and early in their careers. My mom took some time off, but mostly she was teaching full time. My grandmother and grandfather had both retired the year I was born and adopted so they moved upstate and helped take care of me,” he says. They babysat him after school and had him over on weekends. He remembers afternoons sitting with Grandma McCarthy on an old wooden swing in her yard, drinking Lipton iced tea. She would ask him “millions of questions,” especially about what he had learned in school that day and what questions the lessons brought up. “She spent an enormous amount of time giving me her undivided attention.” 

That swing was his favorite school, he says, and hugely transformative in its own way.

“Even before I went to school, I was asking questions. I was a huge troublemaker. I always had behavioral issues, all the way through high school,” he says, laughing. “Probably also in college, graduate school. I’m still a troublemaker. My worst marks were handwriting and behavior. On my second-grade report card, which we still have, my teacher wrote in the comment section, Timmy talks too much. My parents had to respond that they received the report card. So they wrote back, You’re telling us? 

“So Timmy has always talked too much,” McCarthy says. “My father used to joke that I got vaccinated with a phonograph needle.” Given who McCarthy was surrounded by growing up, it’s not a surprise that he learned it was okay to speak up and express himself. 

“I was around adults all the time, as it happens when you’re an only child,” he says. “And I was around adults all the time who were curious about me and wanted to know what I had to say and gave me room and space to tell fanciful stories and to ask tough questions and to just chatter away and make sense of things in their presence.” 

That included his other grandmother, Gram Bobrinitz on his mother’s side, who “was also hungry to learn,” he said during his convocation speech — and taught him other important life lessons. 

“Unlike Grandma McCarthy, who was a first-generation college student, Gram left high school when she was 16 to work in a garment factory in upstate New York,” he says. Her family could only afford to send one of their four daughters to nursing school, so she became a cuffer, which meant putting cuffs on men’s dress shirts. And she could cook. As McCarthy told the graduates in May, when he wasn’t on the swing with Grandma McCarthy, he was in the kitchen with Gram Bobrinitz, “smelling the sauce, marveling at the meatballs, and hovering over the homemade pasta that seemed to stretch across every surface.” By the time he reached middle school, Gram Bobrinitz was nearly 60 and decided it was time to finally get her high school diploma. “That meant that she had to clear some space to study in the midst of all that macaroni. Sometimes, we studied together — I helped her with spelling, she helped me with math — and she beat me to high school graduation.” 

McCarthy says he doesn’t know what inspired her to go back to school but wishes he had asked. 

“I regret not doing oral histories with my grandparents before they passed,” he says. “It’s my biggest regret. So frustrating. And so, I’m now starting to interview my parents. I want to make sure we do that.” 

When Gram Bobrinitz died in 2012, he buried his Ph.D. diploma with her. Her ged hangs in his office in Gutman, next to “McCarthy Way,” a sign Grandma McCarthy’s school district made after the street to the high school where she taught was renamed in her honor. 

“My grandmothers cherished education for different reasons — Grandma McCarthy because she was among the first in our family to go to college, Gram Bobrinitz because she went back to high school to finish what she started,” McCarthy said at Convocation. “I stand here today because these phenominal woman taught their only grandchild to work hard, dream big, and never take any of this for granted.” 

At A Place Like This 

And he did dream big. After graduating from Harvard College with an a.b. and getting two master’s and a Ph.D. from Columbia, McCarthy returned to Harvard, where he taught history and literature to undergradutes before joining the faculty at the Kennedy School. There he was the first openly gay faculty member and stayed for 16 years before coming to the Ed School. “My career has been unorthodox, to say the least,” he says. 

Initially McCarthy planned on staying in New York after his Ph.D., but was still connected to Malcolm, a young boy he started mentoring while volunteering at the Maynard Fletcher School in Cambridge when he was a Harvard undergrad. McCarthy later become Malcolm’s “big brother” through the Big Brother/Big Sister program at Harvard’s Phillips Brooks House Association.

Timothy McCarthy with his dog
With Rogers (as in Mister)

“I made a commitment that I was going to stay connected to him and stay in touch with his mother,” he says. After graduation, Malcolm even attended Coach Mac’s summer basketball camps in Albany. When Malcolm was in seventh-grade, his mother called McCarthy and asked him if he’d “come home” and help her parent him. 

“And so I did. I came back from New York and put everything on hold,” he says. That was in 1998. McCarthy started teaching at Harvard College and moved into Quincy House as a resident tutor. Malcolm lived with him during high school, becoming a track star at nearby Rindge and Latin. 

“I met him when he was four and I was 19. He is 37 now. I’m 52,” McCarthy says. 

Their connection has expanded. Now, Malcolm’s 14-year-old daughter Malia, a ninth-grader at Thayer Academy, has become a big part of McCarthy’s life and visits the Harvard campus regularly. Through him, she’s met famous visitors, including Hillary Clinton and John Lewis. When Malia was nine, McCarthy wrote a piece to her that he published in the literary magazine Pangyrus called “May Our Hope Persist: A Love Letter to My Niece.” He had started the letter in his mind when he was holding her for the first time in the hospital, the day she was born nine years earlier. “I’d never before met a human that new to the world,” he wrote. “You were very small, but you weighed everything. I can’t forget the look on the nurse’s face when she came into that hospital room in Boston and saw you in my arms as you settled into your first night’s sleep. Not everyone can see what is so obvious to us: we are family.” 

Not long ago, McCarthy joined a new family: at hgse. By the time Dean Bridget Long called him in 2021 and asked if he was interested in joining the faculty full time (he was), McCarthy already had strong ties to the school, having taught a few modules of his “Real Talk” course on the art of communication. There was also the strongest connection: C.J. Crowder. He and Crowder, currently the director of talent acquisition at Ignite Reading, had met 20 years earlier, when Crowder was getting his master’s at the Ed School and McCarthy was finishing his Ph.D. at Columbia and teaching undergraduates at the college. 

“I used to work at Harvard Collections — it doesn’t exist anymore — and a few of us went to Whitney’s after work,” Crowder says of their first meeting. He walked over to the jukebox to pick some tunes and turned to the guy next to him to borrow a dollar. “I told him I would play a song for him. I played “Captain Jack” by Billy Joel, and we spent the rest of the night talking.” McCarthy was an assistant resident dean at the College at the time, and Crowder remembers visiting him in the Yard not long after and being impressed when a little boy, a neighbor, “called out, ‘Timothy Patrick McCarthy!!’ because he was so excited to see Tim, and I think I fell in love with him at that moment.” 

When Long reached out about the Ed School job, Crowder says McCarthy was ready to move to Appian Way.

“HGSE is a special place. When I was there, there was a saying that it’s called ‘HUG-SE’ because it embraces you like a hug. It reaches out for special educators who understand the importance of sparking the imagination, passion, and excitement of educators and it makes them a vital part of the hgse community,” Crowder says. “Tim was longing for that opportunity, and I think the leadership at hgse could sense that. Be the change. That’s Tim.” 

It’s a vibe that his students have since picked up on, which doesn’t surprise Crowder.

“He loves teaching — his parents and grandmother were teachers so it’s in his blood,” he says. “He loves connecting with his students and they bring him so much joy and light. He truly believes in the mutual benefit of teaching and knows that as much as he teaches his students, they teach him so much more.” 

During his Convocation speech in May, McCarthy talked to the soon-to-be graduates about how recent “world-historical disruptions” like the pandemic and political insurrections “have changed us for good. I say that because I have learned this from all of you.” Students, he explained, have shown him how to listen more deeply and speak more lovingly. They’ve challenged him to make classrooms more accessible and inclusive. And they have “checked” him when his walk and talk were misaligned. 

Tim McCarthy and C.J. Crowder
In Provincetown, with Crowder

They have also appreciated his way of including storytelling — and one’s personal history — into learning. As Brian Radley, Ed.M.’19, noted in an interview on the school’s website about faculty influences, McCarthy “affirmed for me the power of narrative as a way to connect with and inspire others. He also helped me reconnect with my own educational story in a truly empowering way.” 

That through line of storytelling is why McCarthy joined the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge as a board adviser and emcee for their Resistance Mic! series, and recently hosted a series of author talks at Harvard Book Store. It’s also what keeps him talking about his own family and the influence they’ve had on who he is as an educator, and a person. 

“I say to all my students that stories are the connective tissue of our common humanity and different human experiences. That’s just a core belief that I have,” he says. “Part of this has to do with the fact that I come from a storytelling family. We were always telling stories, listening to stories, and sharing stories. Stories were so important to us They were our riches.” 

Recently, his faculty colleagues at the Codman Square Health Center in Dorchester, where he has been teaching a year-long, college-level Clemente Course in the Humanities free for adults since 2001, cheered his Ed School Convocation speech when they watched it online. For years, they had been hearing McCarthy tell stories about his beloved grandmothers. 

“They were like, ‘I love that your grandmothers made it into the speech.’ They were so excited that my grandmas had made it to Harvard, because in a way, the stories of my grandmothers, their devotion to me and to education, help to connect the dots between my work in Dorchester and my work at Harvard. I suppose I am an unlikely presence in both places, but my grandmas helped to get me here. They are the reasons I am a teacher. I am lucky that way.”

Ed. Magazine

The magazine of the Harvard Graduate School of Education

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