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Former Students Give Retiring Teacher All A's

March 05, 1989|SYBIL BAKER | Sybil Baker is a free-lance writer who lives in Los Angeles. and

At testimonials, the food comes with adjectives on the side.

A luncheon honoring science teacher Al C. Rooney, who is retiring after 31 1/2 years with Covina Valley Unified School District, saw colleagues and former students heaping them on: stern, fair, energetic, gifted, inspiring, disciplined, dedicated, hypnotic.

Hypnotic?

Lt. Frank Wills nodded. "He almost hypnotized you," said Wills, one of about 100 colleagues and former students attending the luncheon in Arcadia.

Wills, now a watch commander with the Pasadena Police Department, was in Rooney's seventh-grade science class at Las Palmas Junior High School in Covina in 1967.

"If you worked really hard," he said, "you were allowed to show up an hour early at school, to study." Wills' delivery was something like Tom Smothers'--only the eyes belied the deadpan.

"And then if you did well, you could stay in and study through recess, and then stay and study after school," Wills said. Then the deadpan cracked, and he grinned. "And you thought you were the luckiest guy in the world to be able to do it."

Facing Cadavers

Evelyn Wong, 24, who organized the event last Sunday, and her sister, Florence Wong, 23, amplified on the Rooney brand of motivation.

If Rooney's seventh-grade students memorized the periodic table of gases, they were allowed to study the muscles of the human body, and if they passed the musculature test, they were allowed to have a fetal pig to dissect, and if they did well, they could become part of a select group that went to Loma Linda University and dissected cadavers.

A field trip to a dissecting room might seem like a big leap from the standard frog, which has aroused its share of squeals and shudders in countless biology classes.

"They were draped," Evelyn Wong said, referring to the cadavers. "But I was shaking. I was scared. I went back to Mr. Rooney. 'I don't think I can do this.' He said, 'What's so scary?' 'They're dead bodies!' He reassured me. He said, 'We're all created to live, and we're all created to die, also.' He calmed me down.

"By the time I got to medical school, I was used to it."

Evelyn Wong, who is Rooney's goddaughter, says the only reason for her being a third-year medical student is "Mr. Rooney. He showed me how to dream big dreams."

"He expected so much out of us," Florence Wong said. "It made us more motivated, not only in his class but in other classes." Now in her first year of teaching first-graders at Ramona Elementary School in Alhambra, she said, "I'm trying to be like him."

At 61, Rooney seems imbued with the pugnacious energy of 10 20-year-olds, and as a younger man he must have created a breeze standing still.

Decade after decade, he organized the "Crazy Eights" the "Nineties" and the "Tams," clubs that met in a small structure in back of his San Dimas house. The students sometimes stayed the night.

The next day, Rooney and his wife, Margaret ("my partner and my greatest inspiration" Rooney says), would take the group on a "mystery trip," a visit to a play, or circus, a helicopter ride or to a parade--which the students marched in.

"A teacher has to be dramatic," Rooney said the day after his testimonial.

"I always looked at a child as a potential success. I never accepted any student as mediocre. I let them go to their strong suit. You meet their needs, and all of a sudden, they'll go to the books. . . . I was able to impart this confidence."

And he was a maverick, as friends Cal McClane, assistant principal at Las Palmas, and Ron Iannone, principal at Covina School, will readily point out.

He was, he agrees. "The paper work? I just pushed it aside." He used to hug his students in the classroom, he said, as he hugged his friends at the testimonial.

"I never judge people," he said. "I take that kid; we start from scratch. 'You and me against the world, we're gonna whip 'em.' "

And, in the same way his students trace their success to him, Rooney says he is "the product of the methodology" of two important teachers in his life.

A Pomona native, "I was on welfare, I ran the streets. I was an F student," he said. But when he was 12, he had a teacher who told him, "You're not dumb, you just don't have the skills," Rooney said.

The idea came as a blinding light: not dumb? It was the signal of a new direction. And when Rooney was a student teacher, his master teacher cemented his confidence. "He just left me hanging. He was no help, except to say, 'Yes, you can do it, if you go home and figure it out.' "

As the climax to Rooney's testimonial, there was a roast. It's hard to put the heat on someone when the atmosphere is awash in so much warmth. But they did their best. They picked on his spelling and his taste in cigarettes in his smoking days.

And Frank Wills took a poke at his choice of profession. "He could have had a cult," he said. "Or, if Mr. Rooney'd been a TV evangelist, he would have been a millionaire by now."

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