Fidel Castro, Class of '45, was voted most likely to succeed, and after he did, he sent his troops to padlock his alma mater, the Colegio de Belen.
Afterward, 16 Jesuits packed up the books and 200 students, and moved from their Jesuit prep school from 20 rambling acres in downtown Havana into Al Capone's former liquor warehouse in a Miami ghetto. There they started over, instructing students in the tradition of St. Ignatius -- to be "men for others" -- and to dig deep for knowledge, even if it means questioning authority.
That was 20 years ago. Since then, all-male Belen Prep has graduated 800 students and blossomed into another American immigrants' success story. It has dispatched many of its graduates, mostly sons of Cuban exiles, to Ivy League schools and earned a reputation in Miami's thriving Latino community for teaching values that run counter to the competitive, dog-eat-dog ethic.
"We try to make students aware that life doesn't revolve around the Fontainebleau Hotel," said rector Francisco Lerena, referring to the hotel's pool and shuffleboard. "We try to help them realize that there are so many people in need who are friendly and full of joy, and that the most important thing in life is not how big a car you drive [or] how much money you make."
Last year, upperclassmen wrote papers on world famine and took time out from studying calculus and American history to build houses for the poor of Santo Domingo. One senior, from an affluent family, was so struck by an impoverished family's dignity and self-reliance that he handed them his new shoes and the snazzy sport coat off his back, Lerena said. Seniors cannot graduate without doing three hours a week of volunteer work in hospitals, poverty projects or centers for the elderly.
Lerena said Belen aims to make its students a bridge between the Latino and Anglo communities here, instilling in them a billingual education and a world view through discussion of issues and community service that college recruiters find hard to resist.
Indeed, the 70 members of Belen's class of '81 are bound for Harvard, Columbia, Tulane, Emory, and other university snapped up six Belen applicants -- all who applied -- for one of the highest acceptance ratios of any high school in the country.
"Belen students are superbly trained, aggressive, hard workers, and their billungualism makes them worth their weight in gold," said the Rev. Timothy Healy, Georgetown's president. "A tremendous part of what happens in college is students educating other students."
What makes Belen students so special, Healy said, is their ability "to relate the northern and southern hemispheres and help sensitize American college students to the way the world functions, at a time when the relationship between the church in both places, and America and many Central and South American governments, is at a crossroads. And these kids do it by just being who they are."
Moreover, Healy added, "they are good learners. Their selection has been borne out of their performance."
The school began in 1852, when the Queen of Spain, Isabella II, issued a royal charter to found Belen. Two years later, the Jesuits took over the school and began educating the sons of Cuba's aristocracy. Belen began cranking out future presidents and business leaders and grew into an elite prep school, sort of Havana's answer to Exeter and Andover.
"In the world of Havana's upper class, you had a certain status if you graduated from Belen," Leo Nunez, 38, dean of students, said. The facilities were grandiose: three baseball fields, two soccer fields, an Olympic-size pool.
In May, 1961, Castro banned the church and Cuba's independent educational system in favor of Marxism. He kicked the Jersuits out. They moved into what had been Capone's place here, a seedy storefront which had become a dance studio among a strip of used car lots in Little Havana.
For years, there was no money for organized sports. The track team worked out in parking lots, the basketball players in borrowed gyms, the football team in the "dust bowl" out back. Boys made enough money to buy helmets and pads by selling chocolate bars in supermarkets and on the street.
A grant to run the school library, a gift from a rich Cuban widow who had earmarked money for Belen from her estate in a Rhode Island bank, was dispatched to Castro until 1971, when the school stopped the disbursement through the courts. The money has since built a library, which is open to the public, in keeping with the school's community ethic.
Money is not so tight anymore, for the school or for students. Many can easily afford the $1,850-a-year tuition as sons of alumni who have gone on the run Miami banks and construction companies. But about 10 percent, according to need, receive full or partial scholarships from money raised through donations and an annual carnival.
Next year the school hopes to attract a broader cross-section of anglo students when it moves across town to a $3.5 million campus on 10 acres, the fuits of a 20-year fund-raising campaign. The impending move has caused some to criticize the Jesuits for abandoning the ghetto roots they have planted.
"We will fight hard not to forget," insisted Father Lerena.
Some 600 students in grades 7 through 12 are taught English by a 47-member, largely Jesuit staff that includes three instructors with doctorate degrees. Although most students speak Spanish, it is often kitchen variety, full of angloisms, and so there are required classes in Spanish grammar and literature.
Instruction in other courses is rarely straight out of the textbook. Consider the question tossed out by a history teacher on the first day of class: "What would you do, or could you do, if you were drivng down some lonely road in Alabama and a big burly sheriff stopped you for no reason and threw you in jail?"
That question made such an impression on Manny Diaz -- "it frightened me" -- that the 26-year-old alumnus said it sparked him to become a lawyer and community activits. "It got me thinking, 'What are your rights? How easily can others take them away?'" The activist is rated by Miami magazine as among the "hot 100 Latins" to watch.
The son of a Cuban electrical worker who emigrated to Miami in 1961, Diaz said his Belen experience left him with a sense of community obligation and a healthy disrespect for authority. The lessons, he said, have served him well since he left Belen.
Students say it's hard to skate by at the school. Thoe who flunk two courses are shown the door. Others, like Alex Menendez, 13, an ex-public school student who fell down in his studies, attend summer school.
"Belen is a lot harder than other schools," he said. "My grades are worse because they give you more work."
Teachers concede that their ideals often run counter to what the students see outside the classroom. Students frequently challenge professors "over this idea of helping others, that it's not in keeping with the law of the jungle, the survival of the fittest, especially after watching their parents struggle and scrap," history teacher Pat Collins said.
"We don't expect to see the full fruits of our work when they're 18," he said. "But if we can just instill the value of community service in a dog-eat-dog world, it may come out at 21, or 30 or 40. Then our work has been successful."