Alan Grayson, Super-Achiever
Alan Grayson grew up in a high-rise apartment in the Bronx with views of Yankee Stadium and the Manhattan skyline. His parents, both public-school teachers, strongly supported his academic achievements. He graduated from Harvard in three years and went on to get a law degree from the prestigious university. As an attorney, Grayson, 50, gained wealth and recognition from his lawsuits against Iraq war contractors, claiming they had defrauded taxpayers. He and his wife, Lolita, moved to Orlando 12 years ago because they wanted to raise a family here. In November, Grayson, a Democrat, unseated Republican Ric Keller in the 8th Congressional District race. He will split time between Orlando, where he and Lolita live with their five children, and Washington.
I didn’t work between the ages of 12 and 16, but at one point I could have used a job. It meant I would have been the sole supporter for my family for a period of time.
My parents were both teachers when the teachers union went on strike during that period. It was quite an experience. We had no income while they were on strike, we had no idea how long it would last, and they couldn’t get another job. My mother was pretty torn up. She didn’t want her students to fall behind and miss out, so they set it up where kids and teachers could come to a community center and study if they wanted to. So while she’d teach for several hours a day, she didn’t get paid for it.
It was dicey. We shut down all sorts of voluntary expenditures: no movies, no restaurants, no allowance. Nothing. The hardest thing was the worrying, not knowing when the strike would end. [Visibly shaken by the recollection, Grayson excuses himself and returns minutes later.] Sorry, but I haven’t thought about this in years.
What I learned then was that people can accomplish a lot if they just stick together. To have any one teacher stand up to the mayor would have been a joke. Having them all stand up together was not a joke. It was a showing of power that in the end was successful. It demonstrated to me if you are willing to stand together in the face of personal trauma, you can accomplish a lot.
Earlier, when I was about 7, I got my first job as a paperboy for the New York Post. I had a wagon and I’d pick up my papers and I’d deliver to between 40 and 70 people on the route and make about $1 a day. What I didn’t know at the time was that my mother used to follow me from a great distance just to make sure I was safe.
I spent my money on comic books and Sicilian pizza, but when I did save money I saved it for books. I loved to read. I’d go to the library twice a week by myself—I don’t think my mom was following me—and I’d take out four books at a time. By the time I finished elementary school, I had read every book on math, physics and chemistry in the local branch of the New York Public Library. I’d even read on the way home. I’d have the book open in my hands and walk through the streets and have no idea how I got home.
After school I’d either play with other kids from the building, or I’d read a comic or a novel, or I’d be at the hospital. I had a real bad case of asthma growing up, and four times a week after school—Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays—my mother would take me to the hospital where I’d get injections for mold spores, dust, trees and grass. Fortunately in the Bronx we didn’t have a whole lot of grass, but there was enough pollen to cause me disability. Sometimes I couldn’t go outdoors. I just had to stay in the apartment and concentrate on breathing. A couple of times I came close to dying.
One summer my father was enrolled in some professional education at Northwestern University and we rented a house in Chicago from people who had cats. The only way I could breathe was being hunched over into a fetal position so, obviously, we had to come home early. I was a camp counselor when I was 16 and the same thing happened.
I had my reservations about working outside, but my parents said, “What’s the worst that can happen?” Well, we found out. Almost every day for two weeks I was sick. Toward the end I’d have to take baby steps because if I’d take full steps I’d be out of breath. I couldn’t sit up straight, either. I’d be hunched over, telling the nurse, “I am really sick.” For two weeks she said I was faking it. She was a strange nurse. Finally I insisted on calling home. Within two hours my parents were there.
My mom cursed out the nurse something fierce and then they took me to the hospital.
My parents really wanted me to spend my time learning and exercising and concentrating on school. I was accepted into the Bronx High School of Science, which was for students who were academically quite advanced. I was on the chess team, debate team and math team. I was editor of the math bulletin, and I received honors in the Westinghouse Contest, which was a national science contest. From my class of 800, 11 of us were accepted to Harvard and no other public high school in the nation matched that.
My parents were proud, but I think to a large degree they deserve the credit. They created a household where education was respected. They encouraged me to read and encouraged me to learn. They are the ones who made it possible.
So I went to Harvard. Scholarships were based solely on economic needs and since both my parents were employed, I didn’t qualify. The first year I cleaned toilets [at Harvard] for extra cash. I also worked as a night watchman [also at Harvard] on the midnight shift. Several times a night I’d make the rounds, taking the key out of a box and sticking it into this circular device I carried to show I had been there. It was difficult on my route. I had poor circulation and it got very cold. I’d come back at 8 a.m. and my hands and feet were like blocks of ice.
After my rounds, I’d go to my morning classes, then study, then go to sleep around 5 in the afternoon, get up at 11:30, and go on patrol again. After that first year I figured out how to do better. I got a job as a features reporter for the Boston Phoenix. I was paid about $100 or $120 per article, which was pretty good.I had a year’s credit for work I did in high school and I went straight through at Harvard. I did four years in three and graduated at 20. For the next year I worked as an economist for the U.S. Department of Transportation, and while I loved the work, it didn’t seem to be as interesting as I thought law would be. I got a perfect score on my law school admissions test and went back to Harvard. Over the next four years I got my law degree, masters, and finished the course work and passed the general exams for a Ph.D.
What I’ve learned is that everyone has their own special complement of skills and interests, so be in tune with what makes you special. Find work and a life that conform to the things you care about. It’s not an easy thing. It’s all too easy to let yourself be a tool of other people. It’s very easy to fall into that. If you allow people to exploit you, they always will. So you have to find out what you want to do, and whose stars matter most to you, and hitch your wagon to that star.