If there is a God, then surely he reached down that day, turned me around, and had me go back into that room.
Though it happened 37 years ago, I was reminded of it while listening to a public radio program called My Big Break, a show in which people recount a moment that changed the course of their life and career.
I was an eighth-grader in St. Benedict’s Elementary School in the northeast Bronx and it was time to make a decision about high school.
Everyone at school lived in the same all-Italian neighborhood. We grew up surrounded by big families, lots of food, and many good people. But we also grew up with racism and violence. Our world was small, defined by an area within a ten-minute walk or so. Living in a neighborhood where everyone looks and lives the same, difference was a threat. Also, when your world is small, small things matter more. Parking in the wrong spot or making eye contact with the wrong person could quickly become an issue of respect and honor.
When it came to high school, everyone went to one of the same few places. I just assumed I would attend the same high school as my brother and sister, Cardinal Spellman, also in the Bronx.
A fateful decision
A few teachers told us about other options, schools like Bronx High School of Science or Aviation that required a day off to travel to the school and take a special exam. One afternoon, a dozen kids or so were listening to a teacher describe Regis, an all-boys school in Manhattan. She described their academic program in glowing terms. She said the teachers were Jesuits, something I’d never heard of before, and that it was free. If you could get in, she told us, it was an incredible opportunity. But the odds were against us. Kids from all over the New York City area sat for the grueling 3-hour entrance exam and only a few hundred passed. Then they interviewed you and your parents and cut that number in half, resulting in only 135 kids attending Regis each year.
After her presentation, she asked us who would like to sign up for the exam. My best friend and I looked at each other and decided to leave. Academic achievement was mostly ridiculed growing up. We craved normalcy and acceptance. A school full of smart kids, Jesuits, and rigorous academics seemed decidedly not normal.
We got up, left the room, and were laughing smugly, happy that we were walking back to our smaller, more comfortable world. Halfway down the hall, we slowed down and stopped, as if being pulled back. “It is a day off, though” one of us said. We considered it further. “Okay, we’ll just take the test. We don’t have to go.”
So we turned around, walked back into the room and started a process that led to both of us going to Regis. There, we learned to read works in Latin and Greek. We analyzed religious texts rather than just recite them. We discovered a culture of hard work, critical thinking, and service to others where being intellectually curious and nice was the new normal. My world got much, much bigger.
Making your own luck
Going to Regis High School was my big break. I was lucky. But what about other people? What of all those who keep walking down that metaphorical hallway, unaware of the possibilities behind all those doors?
While it can be entertaining listening to people answer “What was your big break?” the question I really want to ask people is “What big break would you like to create?” Then I want to give them the skills and the habits to make that big break happen, to improve their own luck.
Part of that is writing a book to help people build a better network, career, and life. Another is trying to create a way for people to self-organize and help each other. Maybe the first step is simply helping people consider the possibilities beyond their current world.
What big break would you like to create?