There has been no greater visionary in my life than Brother Brian Carty. To honor the pioneering legacy of Brother Brian, go back to the first day of the very first class of De La Salle Academy. I was there.
One year earlier, Brother Brian had visited Incarnation School, a Washington Heights parochial school I attended across the street from where I grew up on 175th Street and Audubon Avenue. He was scouting to fill the handful of available seats at an experimental school that hadn’t yet opened its doors. Listening to him describe what would soon be De La Salle, I immediately knew: This is where I want to go to school.
I knew DLSA would challenging assumptions and expectations placed on talented students from low income families, particularly those among our Black and Latino communities. I knew DLSA was challenging assumptions about what to expect from its teachers, and it certainly challenged my own expectations of myself. I knew, and was grateful for, the tremendous risk my family was taking in leaving behind the schools, streets and educational culture we knew (if you’re reading this, this may ring true for you, too).
What I did not know, however, were the massive risks taken by Brother Brian and the small group of founders in challenging the core assumptions of our entire educational system. Only later did I understand the De La Salle experience was responsible for framing my own view of a purposeful life: serving a cause that is greater than yourself.
Presiding over a classroom smelling of back-to-school fresh paint with hardwood floors, shiny and slightly sticky from that old varnish (which never lasted long, right?), Brother Brian held orientation day to introduce himself and the faculty, expand on the Lasallian traditions on which DLSA was founded, and to formally set forth his expectations of that tiny group of students like me who would comprise DSLA’s historic first class. It was Brother Brian’s final instruction in that classroom that remains with me to this day.
Brother Brian told us that before we left that day, all of us were to get to work cleaning up the place and making it ready for classes. There were desks to be moved, books to be stacked and other tasks that, until that day, I mistakenly assumed was a job for school custodians or other adults. My problem was that I had a little league baseball game that day. If I didn’t get back on the subway to Washington Heights, I’d miss my big game. We were in the playoffs!
I nervously walked up to Brother Brian and explained: “Um, I’m sorry but I can’t stay to clean up because I have a playoff game.” Brother Brian looked right down at me, paused for what seemed like forever and said – with a definite non-smile, “Okay, if you have to go, go.”
He let me go, but his response would define for me the De La Salle experience. By the time I flew down the long stairs and caught my train, I understood what Brother Brian was really saying. At De La Salle, more will be expected of you. As we all soon learned from our weekly cleaning duties, we were the custodians of our own school. I don’t remember who won the ballgame, but his look – and what it taught me about the Lasallian tradition – stayed with me forever. I was to be the custodian of my own life.
Throughout those two years at DLSA and beyond, Brother Brian was a close father figure. I was proudly raised as the son of a Cuban and Ecuadorian family dominated by strong women. Like so many of my fellow classmates, there were obstacles. Divorces and separations, addiction and violent episodes inside our apartments and low-income housing, and all across our neighborhoods in the aftermath of the deadly crack epidemic of the 1980s.
I was lucky to have a supportive family. The summer before De La Salle opened, my grandmother, a seamstress in Manhattan’s garment district, taught me how to navigate the sprawling subway lines so I wouldn’t get lost when traveling alone from our apartment to DLSA’s first location at the top floors of a large parochial school on 96th Street and Amsterdam Avenue. I didn’t yet know it, but those two short years as a De La Salle seventh and eighth grader would fundamentally change the trajectory of my life.
Much would be expected of me, but nothing would be more important than the expectations I placed on myself. I would leave DLSA with a full scholarship to Riverdale Country School and Kenyon College, and go on to a rewarding career in corporate communications, public service and at the highest level of American politics.
There were challenges, of course. De La Salle’s rigorous academics would serve as a vital social equalizer, as I navigated life’s social, political and economic divides between the world I was from, and the world I would have the opportunity to inhabit. I’m not alone, here. Our community should talk more about that.
The first time I heard the words “social justice” was at DLSA, which devoted an entire class to exploring the role of justice in society and to challenging our assumptions beyond the simple notions of right and wrong. For me, this was a radical idea. As anyone reading this knows, our nation’s long overdue dialogue on systemic racism, wealth and privilege is empowering an entirely new generation of leaders. Good. Participating in this meaningful dialogue starts by finding ways to experience life through the eyes of others. Doing so is both a gift and a responsibility. DLSA bestowed both. At a crucial age, DLSA offered us a window into the power of connection – an idea central to the DLSA mission. There is a reason why this Catholic celebrated his first Seder in the cafeteria, an enduring DLSA tradition.
Over the years – and especially today as the COVID-19 crisis decimates the health and economic security of students’ families – this alum has not done enough to ensure a new generation of DLSA students have the same opportunities as I did. For some time, I’ve quietly felt that calling, but allowed excuses to get in the way. It is time to do for others what those Monsignor Kelly School alumns did for me.
I’m honored for the opportunity to share just a few of the lessons I learned from our De La Salle family.
By the way, I’m convinced Brother Brian excused me from cleaning duties that day because, as I would later learn during countless recess periods with baseball glove in hand, he had a secret. That man could throw a nasty, big league curveball. If you’re a current De La Salle student, ask him about it. Just don’t bank on getting out of cleaning duty.