When I was growing up, I lived in a three-decker tenement building in East Boston. I lived on the third floor with my mom and sister; my grandparents lived on the first floor. Because of this arrangement, I spent a lot of time with my grandparents, learning their take on life and what was truly important in their eyes. Much of this has stuck with me to this day, but there was one conversation I had with my grandmother that probably set my life’s course in motion.
My grandmother, Sarah, was a seamstress, sewing piece-work for a clothing manufacturer in Boston. She took the train to work every morning from East Boston, as did I to get to Boston College High School. Every morning, we walked to the station and rode public transportation together up until her stop; then I continued on to Dorchester and my final destination. Those mornings commuting together, albeit only in half hour chunks, were a great bonding period for us.
I had made the decision (or should I say, that I was led to believe that I made the decision) to take the road less travelled and attend BC High. Most of my friends from grammar school stayed close by and went to high school in either East Boston (Dom Savio High) or the North End (Christopher Columbus High School); both were predominantly Italian and very safe, comfortable choices. BC High was an enormous leap for me – educationally, culturally and personally. Let’s just say that I didn’t have the swagger then that I possess today. It wasn’t that I lacked confidence; I just don’t think I was equipped to be thrown into my new circumstances – no friends, ill-prepared, and culturally at a loss.
Needless to say, my first three months at BC High were grueling. Whether it was because it was too difficult, too drastic a change, or just that too many new things were thrown at me at once (at 14 years old, I may add), I spent many nights crying myself to sleep and questioning if I had made the right choice. My parents discussed the possibility of switching schools, and questioned if they expected too much of me. In the beginning, I didn’t have many friends; I didn’t have a lot in common with the other boys (or so I thought), and I was struggling with the work – really struggling.
My grandparents knew all of the issues. We were a tight-knit family and talked about everything. The general consensus was, “Why are we putting Louis through this? He is so unhappy.” No one wanted me to quit, but no one wanted me to crack either. “Was it too much of a stretch for the boy?”
One morning, while my grandmother and I were walking to the train station, she turned to me and said, “You know, nobody will fault you for leaving.” Then she paused and looked at me and said, “Of course, except you. If you quit, you probably will regret it for the rest of your life. Every excuse you give me will be justified, but sometimes in life, you just have to suck it up, roll up your sleeves, and get it done. I know this is not what you want to hear from me. Whatever you decide to do, I will support you 100% – but don’t make the mistake I made.” She was referring to dropping out of school in 7th grade. “You have to complete what you set out to do. You quit now, and the next time it will be easier, and the next, until you are 70 years old wondering why you quit everything in your life. That’s all I have to say.”
Pretty powerful words for a woman with a 7th grade education who worked in a sweat shop. No MBA, and still, she nailed it. Character is not something that is taught in college. My grandmother knew what character was, and that if I quit, I didn’t have any. So, suck it up I did. I was at a true crossroads in my life, and was fortunate enough to get the proper direction and support from all of my family. It was a game-changer; from that day forth I became unstoppable. Once I put my mind to something, it usually happens (and with a bit of swagger, too).
My grandmother passed away a few years ago, but her words echo in my head even clearer today than when she spoke them to that 14-year-old boy. “You just have to suck it up, roll up your sleeves, and get it done.”
Much love, Mimi.