National Commentary

Nicholas F. Benton: Ben Affleck or Mr. Hoover

A high school just inside the Washington, D.C., beltway in Northern Virginia gained national notoriety last week when Hollywood star Ben Affleck showed up as the keynote speaker for its graduation.

A couple miles away, also in the region known as Falls Church that I call home, a different commencement speaker today will get virtually no attention outside the immediate area, but has had a sustained impact on the lives of young people that the likes of a Ben Affleck can only imagine.

Celebrities like Affleck, professional athletes and their ilk, think they’ve done something really special if they make an occasional appearance at a school or children’s hospital, especially if it includes a generous photo opportunity.

But publicity and public notoriety or fame never mean anything when it comes to what really counts in the fabric of life, one’s influences and even one’s most significant achievements. For all the elation associated with moments of glory and widespread adulation, they can’t compare with the feelings connected to giving or receiving things, material and otherwise, of true and lasting personal value in interaction with others.    

Affleck may have the universal recognition, the money, the die-hard fans and groupies that few can match, but none of those things add up to what a 37-year veteran of classroom teaching and nightly vigilance reading and critiquing English papers has.

Michael Hoover, who came to Falls Church’s George Mason High School as a spunky, self-assured graduate of the University of Virginia in 1970, is now hanging up his harpoon and other props he’s used every year since then while teaching Moby Dick and other classics of literature.

But he’s not doing it before giving his students one last gift, remarks he has prepared to deliver at his school’s Class of 2007 commencement in Washington, D.C.’s historic D.A.R. Constitution Hall today.

It’s rare indeed for a high school to invite a commencement speaker back for a second time, but George Mason has in Mr. Hoover’s case. The last time he did it was in 1995, on the 25th anniversary of his teaching there. Then, he told students, as reported on the front page of my local paper (as in, the local paper I own), “Take hold of your own unique identity, and squeeze it for all its worth!”

 “We are all our own cartographers,” he said then. “We contain our own futures.” He said in all the great literature, “all the greatest quests are metaphors for a journey within.” Quoting novelist Barbara Kingsolver, he said “It’s what we do that makes our souls, not the other way around.”

Those comments had all the hallmarks of a good commencement speech. But the difference is that Mr. Hoover was not there just for that day, someone who took time out of his busy life to show up once. No, in his case he said, interacted, critiqued writings, and exuded the same notions present in that speech to his students, day in, day out, through school year cycles over and over again for 37 years.

For him, it’s been all about the classroom, and the extended classroom of advising on the school paper and for each year’s senior class planning its proms, homecomings, baccalaureates and special trips. For him, it never ended with the day’s final bell. Night after night at home, he’d stay up into the wee hours wielding his legendary green sharpies through pages and pages of essay papers, marking and scribbling.

I know. I can’t count the times he’d take some time off to chat with me, so often also working late, on the phone in those hours. He had his fill of students over the years who put tall-tale marks deep into essay papers to test whether he really read them. He always caught them.

He could easily have built a career of advancement through administrative ranks, even becoming superintendent of some major school district by now, making twice the salary. He was often tempted, but he always wound up opting for the classroom, because he always knew that teaching students was his heart of hearts.

Thousands of students remember him with the greatest of fondness, because they all came away feeling he truly cared about them enough to make a big difference in their lives. They were right.

One can only hope that George Mason’s graduating seniors, as they go to their commencement today, will appreciate that they’re the lucky ones by getting to hear Mr. Hoover, not those kids down the road who had some run-of-the-mill celebrity.