Bobby Petrocelli’s “10 Seconds” at Washingtonville High School
By Eugenia Moskowitz
A guest speaker who can deliver an important message effectively to students is rare. Bobby Petrocelli is one of them, and Washingtonville High School has welcomed him to its auditorium annually for the past 15 years to speak with freshmen about how life changes in an instant.
His whole message revolves around the simple words: you matter. “Whatever bad thing has happened to you in the past,” Petrocelli said on Oct. 29 to the full freshman class, “doesn’t define you, though it’s easy to think that way.” After an attention-getting opening worthy of any professional comedian that had the students fully engaged, he explained how he had been married to a woman named Eva for two years and was living in a brand new house in Texas where he coached high school football. After dinner, they had talked for a bit, then Eva went to bed. He followed soon after and fell quickly asleep. The next thing he knew, his clock said 12:45 a.m. and he was sitting upright in his dining room window, which made no sense. There was the smell of something burning, maybe the spaghetti they had had for dinner, a strange fog that smelled bad, and weird moonlight shining in.
The moonlight was the headlights of an F150 pickup truck that had smashed into the house, and Eva was wrapped up in the bedsheets underneath the truck. Petrocelli was covered in blood, broken glass, and melted tire rubber, and police and paramedics were asking him: Is there anyone else in the house?
“Life doesn’t happen one day at a time,” he said. “Life happens in one moment that impacts your life forever: good, bad, right, or wrong. And it has the power to affect you and others as you make decisions based on that, or blame yourself for the bad things that may happen around you.” He took a deep breath. “I’m here to tell you straight up that it’s not your fault. But bad stuff can lead to bad behavior: there’s a reason why someone acts a certain way, bullies other people, or abuses drugs or alcohol. You have to separate yourself from those people and their brokenness because they feel insecure themselves and try to fix it by putting their insecurity onto you. Do not allow them to define you their way.”
In the house, Petrocelli was confused. Was this a Halloween prank? Why was the house destroyed? And why was Eva underneath a pickup? Its taillights were visible sticking out of the brick wall as his ambulance pulled away.
He woke up in the hospital where a police department chaplain told him the two words he never wants anyone’s family to hear: I’m sorry. “My life changed in one moment. My wife was dead.” Over 1,000 students from his high school ended up coming to the cemetery, as well as teachers and administrators, saying: You matter, coach, we love you. “So here I am, returning the favor,” he said. “I’m here to tell you that you are always in the present, and how you handle that is what makes you or breaks you, what sends you down the right path or the wrong one. You get in trouble when you focus on the past or future and are not present in the present moment. You turn to drugs and alcohol when you lose sight of that.”
The driver of the pickup truck was twice legally drunk. “But I’m gonna go against the flow here and say drinking-and-driving didn’t kill my wife. That he was drunk in the first place killed my wife. And what was the root cause of why he was drunk? Insecurity. He was like this cell phone wrapped up in a plastic bag,” Petrocelli held his phone up, “covered in brokenness and pain. He drank to numb it, which only added more layers. Forgiveness plays a role. Forgiveness doesn’t condone wrong, but it gets the plastic bag off of who you really are, whereas unforgiveness only makes things worse. It’s like driving a car forward while looking in the rear view mirror all the time. You can’t see, and you will crash. I didn’t want to stay in that spot of crashing. I wanted to move forward.”
For years he struggled with the randomness called survivor guilt. “We had just switched sides of the bed. I should have been in her spot. And it was hot in Texas, she suggested we sleep in a different room closer to the AC, but I had said no. I played this through my head a million times.” While that does haunt him still, he remarried a few years later and now has two grown sons. What helped get him through? Faith played a role, but also, he said, “Make good friends who you can be real with, and who will be there for you, not leaves or branches, because those fly off the minute it gets windy. Find friends who are roots.”
Telling his story with his signature Brooklyn-inflected humor was well-received by the students and made his delivery effective; by the end had many kids wiping their eyes. Switching from humor to seriousness throughout the hour is the same technique he said he uses with older grades as well as middle school students, and is the success behind the message he’s delivered in schools around the country for the past 25 years.
At the end of the hour, hands shot up as students eagerly asked questions due to the open atmosphere Petrocelli had created. And after a huge round of applause from the students, one school administrator said, “He’s always been incredible. Everybody comes away from his presentation deeply affected. Everybody.”
To learn more, go to http://www.10seconds.org.
CAPTION: Bobby Petrocelli gave his yearly talk to Washingtonville ninth graders on Oct. 29 in the brand-new high school auditorium. (Photo by Eugenia Moskowitz