Charlie Rooney, my freshman year high school algebra teacher, died yesterday. He was 89, and had lived a wonderful life, all the way to 16 grandchildren and three great-grandchildren. He had taught the newbies math at our prep school for 38 years, and he moonlighted at the local Jesuit college (which I also attended), teaching night school, for more than 20 of those. Mr. Rooney and I caught up to each other just about halfway through his storied career. I was 12; he was 45.
I had many great teachers in my time, but none combined patience, method, and guidance any better than Mr. Rooney. More than schooling us in the x's and y's of algebra, he taught us how to learn. Note-taking was a central focus of his class. He'd collect our brown-covered notebooks once a week and grade them, and his lectures were more or less dictation of what we should be writing down. Did it stifle our creativity? Of course it did, and that was the whole point, I think. This was math, and a bunch of pubescent boys. We could be creative in art class.
Many of his lessons stick with me to this day. I'll never forget the "FOIL method" -- first, outside, inside, last. When simplifying the expression (x + y)(2x -3), you'd multiply first by first, outside by outside, inside by inside, and last by last, and then add them all up: 2x2 - 3x + 2xy - 3y. There was a special place for (x + y)(x - y), because the inside and outside would cancel each other out, leaving x2 - y2.
As much as he drilled us, and as little room as he left for freelancing, Mr. Rooney was a gentle soul. Every once in a while, when something amused him, you'd see a leprechaun's twinkle in his eye to go along with a wry grin. When a student would respond to one of his questions with a really dumb answer, he'd shake his head ever so slightly and say softly, "Not today, son -- not today." And dark-rimmed reading glasses -- as I recall, he'd be popping those on and off a few times per class session.
We'd meet with Mr. Rooney in the late morning, after recess and before lunch. We'd have a test in a different subject every day of the week, and if I'm not mistaken, the math test day was Wednesday.
I remember the word problems, which were much more challenging than playing with the formulas and rules. "Train A, traveling 70 miles per hour (mph), leaves Westford heading toward Eastford, 260 miles away. At the same time Train B, traveling 60 mph, leaves Eastford heading toward Westford. When do the two trains meet? How far from each city do they meet?" To this day, whenever my brain attempts to tackle one of these, I'm revisiting compartments built by Charlie Rooney.
He was not flashy. Some of the characters we had as teachers were larger than life, and we gave a few of them not-so-endearing nicknames. Our religion teacher, who would whack a student every now and then, somehow became "Bwana." The prefect of discipline was known as "Rollo" or "Nutsy." Our art teacher, who showered infrequently, was known off the record as "Stench." The principal, Edward Snyder, was "Duke" -- what else? But there was no nickname for Mr. Rooney that I ever heard. He was a simple guy who worked hard, and all he asked was that you do the same. A teacher of freshmen, he rarely ventured outside the separate building that housed us first-years, which seemed fine with him. As I recall, he never wore the white lab coat that some of the other math guys put on; instead, it was the lowlier black academic gown, every school day.
I could never teach like Charlie Rooney. To me, it's always been about the show as well as about the material. I like to be the one trying to make the big moments happen in the classroom. Not this guy. He'd stick to the core, and let the magic show up unannounced on its own. It worked, and it worked well. See you 'round, Mr. Rooney. And thanks.