Laughing to learn: Charlotter Rookie Manning on a lifetime of learning, laughing and teaching

After 43 years of service, Rookie believes that teaching built her confidence, helping her become more empathetic and making her “want to reach out more.”

Rookie Manning was not always Rookie Manning. She arrived at Ursuline Academy, an all-girl Catholic high school in Massachusetts, one mischievous Mary O’Rourke. Her friends, perhaps realizing that they could not change her troublemaking habits, changed her name.

“You’re nothing like our Mother Mary statue,” her friends objected. O’Rourke was shortened to Rookie, and the name stuck.

Yet, when the Charlotte News was searching for a town matriarch to profile, Rookie’s name popped up quickly. And rightly so. Retired now, Rookie was a teacher for 28 years. She moved to Thompson’s Point in 1975, and has lived in Charlotte ever since. First teaching at Charlotte Central School, Rookie immediately felt like she “belonged to the community.”

“The school was filled with amazing people,” she says, “And I’m a people person.” That seems quite an understatement.

More Charlotters likely know about Rookie’s time at CCS, where she worked tirelessly, sometimes dealing with the town’s tiny population by teaching one class comprised of students from kindergarten to third grade. Fewer will know about her five years of working at Northlands Job Corps Center in Vergennes, where she taught reading, writing, and poetry to migrants. She recalls her first poetry class there.

“I thought nobody would show up,” she says. Rookie had a diverse range of experiences in her classroom, with people from Africa and Latino countries to Boston and New York City. Once establishing the classroom as a safe space, the new poets shared “jaw-dropping” stories.

“It’s an existence you can’t imagine,” she reflects.

She must have taught the class well, because her next poetry class was under such high demand that she had to split the class in half and teach it twice.

After 28 years of service, Rookie believes that teaching built her confidence, helping her become more empathetic, and making her “want to reach out more.” She says she loves children, adults, and dogs. Now, likening her to the statue at her high school doesn’t seem too far fetched.

Ursuline Academy was actually where Rookie decided to become a teacher. When she was first asked to teach a Sunday school class, she worked hard to prepare for it, and will only admit that she did “pretty well.” Seeing her instruct, the nuns encouraged her to pursue teaching, and, although she says she was not “an academic” in high school, Rookie got her degree in elementary education.

High school was also where Rookie exercised her “Irish sense of humor” that is part of the reason she is such a successful teacher. She remembers talking her entire English class into hiding on the roof of the building, then sitting in the classroom alone. Her teacher, (whom she speculates thought, “Why is Rookie here, of all people?”) asked her where her class was. She feigned ignorance. When the nun left to find the rest of the students, Rookie brought the girls back in through the bathroom window, and they all acted as if nothing had happened. She was duly punished, but Rookie still managed to bring that sense of humor to her own classroom. “If they’re not laughing, they’re not learning,” she says.

“What are you up to now?” I ask.

“No good,” Rookie says, smiling. She has two sons and four granddaughters. Two of those granddaughters attend Charlotte Central School. She plans on taking a trip to Iceland with another granddaughter over the summer. But what is most striking are the relationships she has kept with her former students.

I talked with Rookie for only an hour, and in that time at Village Wine and Coffee, she recognized two former students. Two other students called her mobile number. I can truthfully say that I have never seen a teacher so invested in the lives of her students after the school day ends. She has attended students’ weddings. One pupil returned to Vermont from Washington after having not seen Rookie for 25 years. The student wanted her five year old twins to meet the woman she had always told them about. Rookie even traveled to Alabama, reading a poem she wrote for a young man at his college graduation. He had graduated from her class at Northlands, and asked her down. She’ll “step into anything,” and promises to help her family of students, if even only by listening.

Whether you call her Rookie Manning, Mom, Mrs. M, Grandma, or Mary O’Rourke, you can always call her a people person, and surely, a great Charlotter.