“Great teachers are usually a little crazy.” Andy Rooney
From my experiences, Andy Rooney’s quote was right on target. But like most things with our writing or experience, we can’t oversimplify the significance of a word that can parsed into a multiplicity of meanings. My work in schools has run the gambit from a ‘good crazy’ that translated to an act of courage for the sake of students; to a ‘crazy crazy’ as I approached my newly appointed dean of students position at a middle high school in New Hampshire. Based on those experiences, I’d add administrators along with teachers to the spectrum of crazy. Ironically, it was two additional Rooneys (Gerry and Ed) who directly and indirectly helped me understand that we can’t take the word ‘crazy’ too lightly.
The ‘crazy crazy’ story and Rooney unfolded in the summer of 1986. I was excited to have been selected a Dean of Students position, moving up from a teaching position I held at the school for six years. I thought my experience with students and faculty as a teacher would translate well in defining the role away from the stereotypical versions I had consistently experienced to that point in my career. Weeks before school started, I saw the movie, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. It’s still one of my all time favorite movies, and I think it does a great job capturing some of the stereotypes of public school constituencies in a fun, entertaining way. However, I remember sitting in the theater both entertained and mortified at the Dean of Students Ed Rooney’s portrayal in the movie. I think it may have been the first time the full dynamics of the position I was about to take on sunk in. I certainly didn’t realize the disdain that is held by many for a position that often had to mete out accountability.
During the movie I was thinking of a conversation I had with and assistant principal from another school district earlier in the summer. He was a friend who I got to know professionally in the previous years who had a great sense of humor. I was seeking his advice, but his conversation diminished into a warning. He described his experience as sometimes looking into a mirror in the morning and saying, “You really are an asshole” And that’s exactly how Ed Rooney was coming across as he tried to match wits with Ferris Bueller. I was taken aback, but not deterred; at least until the popcorn I was munching on in a darkened theater was a bit harder to swallow during the final scene of the movie.
While I didn’t venture into Ed Rooney territory during my first year as dean of students, I did find myself looking in the mirror some days and thinking of my friend’s lament from the neighboring school district. I didn’t see the teacher, the educator…instead I was turning into a person I didn’t like too much and knew I wasn’t long for this type of administrative position. After two years, I ended up leaving the position and returning to my teaching and coaching roots. It also opened a new door to continued graduate work and new discoveries in literacy and teaching writing,
While Ed Rooney’s fictitious character bled into my own dean of students experience, there was another experience in my teaching journey that could have easily made it to the pages of a movie scene…perhaps a documentary or a melodrama. Andy Rooney’s thoughts on the crazy making a great teacher made me wonder if one of my earliest teaching encounters was an example that may have led to his claim. Ironically, the star attraction of my story to tell is another Rooney, Gerry Rooney; an English teacher and Department Head of Rockland(MA) High School. Could they have been distant relatives? Could Andy’s thoughts on great teachers and craziness be based on a shared story that to this day is still hard to believe?
The ‘good crazy’ I witnessed was at the very beginning of my professional career. I was serving as a Northeastern University co-op student interning at Rockland(MA) High School. It was the third day I was substitute teaching for a science teacher. The hot, sun-filled spring day that created a pall of lethargy that only increased as I delivered the day’s lesson to the class. It was the same lesson the teacher had been using for over a decade, and reminded of another teacher highlighted in the Ferris Buellar movie that produced the same level of student excitement. But the craziness began toward the end of that period and built to a crescendo that never seemingly leveled off that day, resulting in repercussions lasting to the end of the school year.
At the beginning of class, a painting crew arrived outside the classroom door to paint the stairwell across the hall leading to the first floor. They set up their drop cloths and ladders, and it wasn’t too long before the scent of fresh paint began to drift into the classroom. About 15 minutes before the period was due to end and students would be in the halls heading to their next class, Assistant Principal McGarigal arrived with a heavy chain and padlock. A balding man whose thick, dark framed glasses defined a constantly furrowed face spoke briefly to the painting crew, closed the fire doors to the stairwell, and chained and locked them shut. As he was snapping the lock shut, Gerry Rooney, the English Department Head, was walking by in the hallway. The craziness began.
Initially it didn’t settle in as the type of crazy that would serve the greater good, but in retrospect it was a lesson for doing the right thing for students and standing up to ‘the man’ despite the inevitable consequences. Gerry asked what was going on and McGarigal explained that he needed to keep students away from the stairwell for the remainder of the day because of wet paint. Gerry said he couldn’t do that because it posed a safety risk should the building need to be evacuated. He even pointed out the locked doors were a greater risk because they were across from science classrooms that potentially could have a small fire or chemical issue creating an emergency.
The conversation went back in forth with Gerry Rooney saying, “You can’t do that because of the safety risk;” with Mcgarigal responding, “Gerry, you do your job and I’ll do mine!” It went back and forth a few times with the crescendo building until Gerry finally said, “OK, I’ll do my job.” He went to the fire alarm which was also across the hall and pulled it. I remember seeing the horror in McGarigal’s face, while Gerry remained in the hallway and immediately started calmly advising students this was a drill and was directing them to use an alternative exit away from the locked stairwell.
Outside the school, there was a lot of confusion, but no one seemed to mind being out of their stuffy classrooms. The confusion stemmed form the sirens of the firetrucks and emergency vehicles arriving at the school, requiring the masses of students and adults to be moved further from the school. There were all sorts of speculation at that point, but the main conclusion seeming to emerge, was that it must be some sort of bomb scare being taken quite seriously.
I knew better though but didn’t see any sign of Rooney or McGarigal outside the building as fire and emergency personnel were exiting vehicles and entering the school. I could only imagine the angry conversations that were occurring inside the building. I wondered who would be in more trouble: Rooney for pulling the fire alarm or McGarigal for locking up a stairwell with students in the building. The answer came a few hours later as I returned to the English Department office to gather my things to leave for the day. As an intern, I wasn’t privy to the intimate conversations going on and the looks of concern on teachers’ faces had me conclude that Gerry Rooney was bearing the brunt and burden of his standoff with Assistant Principal McGarigal.
I found out the next day that Gerry Rooney had been placed on administrative leave for the remainder of the year. I shared my story with the few teachers hanging out in the English Dept. office and the conversations were reflective of the arbitrariness of the meaning of crazy depending on one’s perspective. To me, Gerry Rooney exemplified a good crazy; one that carries the badge of an act of courage but made it to the crazy zone because he could have just called the fire dept to lodge a complaint. McGarigal, even though his actions were admonished and ultimately led to the unlocking of the stairwell, kept his job.
I never saw Gerry Rooney again. He left quietly, and very little information was available for how the drama of the situation played out inside the building once the fire dept. arrived. Gerry Rooney was scrubbed from everything. Even the high school yearbook showed no traces of his existence. A few years later I tried to look him up in Exeter, NH after finding out he opened a health food store. I was unable to track him down there but did find out years later that he opened a health foods store in an Oregon college community. I have a feeling he was ok with his life’s decision as well as the last decision he made as a practicing educator.
As I wrote this memoir, I saw the ‘crazy crazy’ of Ed Rooney’s compulsive behavior in the Ferris Buellar movie and Mcgarigal’s actions come together. In retrospect, how would one best describe the craziness of a school administrator locking a potential emergency exit while hundreds of students and teachers are in a building? It’s not a description of the crazy that Andy Rooney was thinking of with his quote. Perhaps though, it was the type of crazy that his kindred spirit Gerry Rooney exemplified on a sunny spring day in Rockland , Massachusetts.
It does make me wonder whether Andy Rooney had Gerry Rooney in mind when he delivered his quote. One thing I do know is that absent of pulling the fire alarm, he was a great teacher.