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Monday, March 29, 2010

Linear equations

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.

Comments (24)

Cool comments Jack!
Your reflection of him says a lot about you.

Thank you for rememberence.

Exactly. One of a kind.

A wonderful tribute, Jack.

You have a great memory (nit: except for The Duke, Rev. Edward J. Snyder. S.J.)

Edward Peter Wolf
Prep '70

Tremendous piece, Jack. Flash doesn't always equate to the best educators. And anybody who spends 40 years teaching Freshmen...well, there's no question where he is today. RIP.

I wish Mr. Rooney had been my math teacher. I might have learned something about math!
Lucky you!

I had similar giants in my life that brought me into the world of mathematics, and they are mostly gone now. But your tribute brought them back for a while.

And by the way - freshman Algebra at age 12?

Wonderfully said, Jack. Your recounting his wearing of the academic gown (a chalk stained one at that) vs the white lab coat, and the "not today, son...not today" (I rec'd a few of these!) bring back many good memories of a great man and teacher!

I've fixed the spelling of the Duke's real name. I remembered that his last name was different from the ballplayer's, but other than that, I had it screwed up worse than a future subjunctive.

A great honor to have my classmates commenting here. Time it was and what a time it was, it was...

Great read Jack.
Makes us think about all the teachers who helped us along the way.
One that I am thankful for, a high school teacher who had a several weeks session on propaganda.

Quite moving, Bojack. We all had a couple like these. And then a select few of us had some like you, equally rewarding in a very different way. Thanks.

Crazy Eddie

Well, I had a math teacher who was quite the disciplinarian. Second year math and she declared I was gonna fail. That galvanized me to become creative with a final exam in quadratics, which I passed with a perfect score, while no one else even finished.

It would seem that I cheated and knew the answers, but I didn't. I had to work each problem for the answer, but I took a creative turn to get there, which has served me well. It turned me to engineering and not mathematics for a career.

I wish I had your teacher, but then he also sounds similar to Ms B. They probably would have liked each other. I certainly can't fault her, she did her job very well.

I didn't fail after all, but barely made it.

Jack, you might like a book called "Shadows of the Mind" by Roger Penrose. In it he explores the connection between mathematical intuition and formal systems, asking interesting questions along the way. And that's just for starters!

Every class began with Rooney holding the algebra textbook like a Bible and saying "All right, boys, let's move"!

Excellent tribute Jack, and right, you are incredible in being able to recall small and yet emotionally powerful experiences that become more meaningful and moving from the perspective of having lived almost half a century and seeing how unique and rare men like Mr, Rooney are in any walk of life. He was really funny when he did that not today bit, and I think I may have gotten more not todays than anyone in my Freshman 1F section. Mr. Rooney was determined to not see me fail and worked hard to get me through the summer school make up class, after I had failed my Freshman Math class. He leaves behind an invaluable legacy that will never die, and I hope members of his family will see a copy of this piece because I know that it will confirm what they have allways known, but will surely give them comfort and solace in their time of mourning. Well done, Jack, Very well done.

Happy Easter to You and All of Your Loved Ones.



Ah, Mr Rooney, a classic Prep teacher and surely responsible for educating many fertile minds in the subtlety of math, mine included. What makes many teachers stand apart in terms of results is the ability to promote the learning process, make it interesting and turn on the light bulb. Rooney helped me do thatas well as intuitively understand the concepts of Algebra. In my later career as a buider and carpenter they proved invaluable. One of my favorite teachers, those that did not get a chance to share his classroom are surely the poorer for it. Thanks for the remembrance Jack, we surely had some times..

Mark Mahar
Prep '71

Eugene Sanzo, is that really you? Amo, amas, amat, amamus, amatis, amant!

Great stuff Jack. I spent freshman math with Fr Timone, a piece of work himself.
As we have been reflecting on all the men who taught us at Prep, it becomes interesting to realize that both the Jesuits and the lay teachers (who were probably way underpaid) participated in our education because of a true vocation. It wasn't a job, it was their life's work.
Thanks to all of them, they have made us better men.


Gene Sanzo and I were just listening to some classical music on WQXR. Now, look boys, I know it's spring and the young man's mind is distracted by the pulchritudinous puella, but let's have a good reading by a good man, Tom Biondo - take it Tommy!

[Seizing window pole] Iacite pila!

Remember when I went to confession with Fr. Timone and left the door open so all of you guys could hear me tell him in detail about feeling up my girlfriend under the boardwalk? Timone got so excited and his heavy breathing became so labored that we thought he was going into cardiac arrest until he heard Whelan laughing and burst out of the confessional all red faced and shammed to chase us out of the church.

And sadly, another giant has passed away:
Jaime Escalante

As a math teacher, I am glad that you celebrated an effective style that is not appreciated enough. There need to be strong teachers who value 14 year olds and are just very consistent.

Consistent, effective teaching should be celebrated. Glad to hear it.

[Seizing window pole] Iacite pila!

Jack, having survived Fr. Murray and his window pole,"Iacite pila", brings back more than a few, now laughable, memories. He yielded that pole like a conductor treated his baton! God forbid he caught you away from your desk when the break between double period ended!

Talk about being poked and prodded!

Thanks for remembering Mr. Rooney. He worked us as hard as if not harder than the other teachers, but he respected us even more. That is why we revere him.

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