Carlo Cirilli didn't think his request stood a chance.
After all, the Latin and Italian teacher had just written to U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice Samuel Alito, asking if the court's newest member could pay a visit to his Latin language club at Columbia Middle School in Berkeley Heights.
Alito did grow up in New Jersey -- Hamilton -- and has an affinity for the ancients -- he took Latin at Steinert High School -- but it was still a long shot.
In mid-October, one month after mailing the letter, a decision was handed down: Alito had accepted the invitation with a signed note.
"What are the chances?" Cirilli said. "Faith and the hope that the dream came true."
Yesterday, Alito stood at a microphone in Columbia's gymnasium, in front of more than 600 students, teachers and parents. He accepted the school's award for extraordinary achievement, named in his honor, then urged students to consider Latin.
Far from a dead language, Latin is a language that lawyers can utilize. They would be lost, he said with a smile, if banned from uttering Latin phrases like "ex parte" and "pro se." Latin helps students with their writing skills and even "the dreaded SAT," he said.
Alito, 56, described his own boyhood ambitions, which mirrored those of his friends. He told the mostly preteen crowd that he wanted to become a baseball player but fell short after discovering he couldn't hit a curveball. Then he aimed to become an Olympic runner, but just didn't have the speed.
It was only until later in life that Alito considered serving in government, becoming a judge and reaching the Supreme Court.
"When I was in college, as a joke, in my college yearbook I wrote that I dreamed of one day warming a seat on the court," he said. "I never thought that would actually happen. It's an incredible irony, I think, that that dream did come true for me."
Goals may change, he told students, but, "I certainly encourage you to have high ambitions, to have dreams, and to work to make those dreams come true."
Alito had met earlier with the Latin club's 50 members, telling the group he still remembers his high school Latin teacher, who was something of a character. She believed the Romans invented the airplane 2,000 years ago, he said, though those plans were somehow lost. The justice, clad in gray suit and red and blue tie, got a chuckle from students.
As he spoke, Alito's wife, Martha-Ann, and mother, Rose, a former school teacher, looked on. So did Cirilli, who was beaming.
This is the first year Columbia Middle School has offered Latin to its students and Cirilli wanted to bring someone in to "give students an inspiration point, someone they can connect with."
The justice's words did just that for 13-year-old Katherine Ganger, who is the Latin club's secretary. "This was really big. What he said will help us in the future," she said confidently.
A short time after the justice had left, Cirilli still couldn't believe what had happened. Proudly displaying the letter Alito had sent him -- on U.S. Supreme Court stationery -- Cirilli shook his head in disbelief.
"No way he was coming. Come on, please. It was just a dream," he said, adding quickly, "the dream did come true."