By Michael Hoover
While I agree with the statement in Alice Rooney’s obituary that said, “All who knew her were saddened at her passing,” I also celebrate the extraordinary fact that such a wonderful person surpassed her 100th birthday and had more time on this earth than most to touch the hearts and minds of all who loved her, which essentially meant all who knew her.
I first met Alice Rooney when I was a rookie teacher at George Mason High School in 1970. I was one of 28 new teachers in the school system that year and while I was overflowing with enthusiasm and energy for teaching, I, probably more than most, needed the wisdom and guidance of wise, caring and experienced teachers.
Fortunately, I found such guidance in a great many educators, including “civilians” in education such as Jessie Thackrey (another centenarian!) and Betty Blystone and Carol DeLong and a host of dedicated individuals who were determined to make the City’s schools meet the needs of all its students.
On the inside, there were countless experienced teachers who looked out for the newbies. In my case it was English Department chairman Milt Davis who had interviewed me for the job of English teacher and to whom I turned at the end of my very first day of actual teaching to tell him that I was resigning. I told him that the job was too difficult and that I was not prepared for it, and that I was scared out of my mind. Milt stayed with me until late evening that first day and extracted this promise from me: That I would stay at least until the end of the week and that if I entertained thoughts of resigning again, I promised that I would continue to meet with him each day. If, at the end of the work week I still felt that I needed to resign, he would begin the search to find my replacement.
Somehow, with the encouragement of my fellow teachers and with the apparent support of my students who were very forgiving of my inexperience, and, lastly, with the loan of a handkerchief by one of my students, Debbie Ames, who knew I was perspiring entirely too much to make a good impression, I made it through the week. And then I made it through nearly four more decades.
My point here, dear readers, is that community matters. That “insiders” and “outside supporters” need to be on the same page and that everyone needs to be committed to the same goal of excellent teaching. We all need to be committed to the idea that kids are worth everything we can give them. That’s how I felt during my first years of teaching in Falls Church. And it’s why I stayed so long.
That kind of leadership was provided by so many experienced teachers. In the math department it was offered by the “wild” Casey Withers and by the super-experienced Chester “Rocky” Rockwell. In the history department it was provided by the “Professor,” aka Charlie Harold, who knew more about British and world history than any scholar from Oxford and he had the Scottish accent to back it all up. In the science department that kind of guidance was provided by Alice Rooney.
Whether you were a new teacher or an experienced one, Alice Rooney would take you into her professional family and hold you close because she inherently understood that teachers were like her family and needed similar encouragement and even (slight) chastisement to learn just how complex a project it is to try to convey knowledge to over 100 extraordinarily different students each day for 180 days.
Alice taught chemistry and was the science department chairman for over 25 years at George Mason High School. She was a dedicated teacher who encouraged many of her students to pursue science in some form as a career. There is no higher tribute for a teacher than to point to the students whom she inspired to follow her passion.
Yet, in the midst of all this serious-minded pursuit of excellence in education, Alice was a true character, a lover of life and people and humor and fun! I recall in particular an incident in the stifling hot, near-summer months of a school year that I’m guessing was in the mid-1970s. The temperatures in the then non-air conditioned high school were almost beyond bearable. Teachers had trouble remembering their lesson plans and students could barely hang on as the heat and humidity were so extreme.
Alice sent me a note one morning. She sent it to me because I had recently taken on responsibility for sponsoring The Lasso, the school newspaper. In the note Alice announced that the paper may want to assign a reporter and a photographer to cover one of her classes because she was going to see if her students could actually fry eggs on the chemistry lab’s floor. This was particularly interesting because it was rumored that many of the school’s classrooms, but especially those in the science wing, had hot water pipes in the floors whose temperatures could not be controlled. Of course I sent the reporter and the photographer and of course, somehow, Alice saw to it that the eggs fried (at least a little bit) and the story made the news.
It wasn’t much later that the powers that be somehow came up with the money to air-condition the school. Alice came to see me some time later and, with a wink, said, “We couldn’t have planned it better.”
You can believe that or not, but that story is etched in my soul, as is my esteem for Ms. Rooney.
Michael Hoover is a former English and journalism teacher (1970-2007) at George Mason High School.