Mary Alice Cisneros pulled her Jeep Cherokee into a parking lot in downtown San Antonio and scanned the crowd of teenagers emerging from a school bus with unseasonably studious looks on their faces. Although it was a hot July day, the kids had just come from class: an eight-week college-level course meant to prepare them for distant careers in math, engineering, and science.
After a few moments, Mary Alice’s son, John Paul, crossed the lot and greeted her with good news. “I made 105 on the egg project,” he said. John Paul was supposed to build a box in which an egg could withstand being dropped four stories. And, amazingly, the box worked.
“But how could you get 105, not just 100?” Mary Alice asked.
“I don’t know, Mom,” he replied. “I suppose it’s rare for the egg to survive the drop. What can I say?”
Like the egg, John Paul is miraculously intact, and he’s busily planning his life with that knowledge. At fourteen, he is at that wonderful phase between childhood and adolescence, before boys begin to resist their mother’s fawning. He is of medium height and build and has dark eyes, an angular head with close-cropped hair, and fine features. But the thing you notice most about him is the matter-of-fact way he talks about his brushes with death.
“I can’t remember not knowing that I was born with a heart defect,” he tells me. “I’ve never really worried about it too much. Everybody dies at some point. I just knew that I might die early. But I didn’t die. And now my heart is well enough. I’m fixed.”
That said, the hole in the center of his body remains the primary window through which he and his family view the world. The night before, John Paul and his father, former San Antonio mayor Henry Cisneros, spent an hour sitting at the kitchen table of their home on the West Side, talking about Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. To Henry, the message of the novel was that the notion of utopia—a place where crime, poverty, and disease are wiped out—is a nightmare. “In such a world, individuals outside the norm—in other words, people born with heart defects—are diminished,” he told John Paul. “In that kind of world, individuals don’t count.”
Not so, John Paul countered: “In