Mr. Mickey Burrell was my one of my favorite high school teachers, and the faculty sponsor for our school’s DECA chapter. Distributive Education Clubs of America is a non-profit organization that helps young people explore entrepreneurship, business management and marketing. When I was a high school junior, Mr. Burrell enrolled and coached me in DECA’s Entrepreneurship Competition. For this contest we had to come up with an original idea for a business start-up, create a formal business plan and then orally present the business to a panel of judges who acted a bit like bank loan officers. My fascination with computers was just beginning, so I developed a computer based shopping service called Compu-Gifts. Entries from DECA’s Tennessee chapters were screened and selected for the state competition, and the top state winner moved on to national finals.
The years leading up to my junior year had not been easy for me. Prior to restarting my life at my current high school, I had stopped attending school altogether. For almost two years I spent most of my days fine-tuning my skills in what I thought would be a life of petty crime and hustling. But things were different now. My family life had changed for the better, and I was back in school. I had people rooting for me and believing in me but I felt almost weighted with their expectations. Something in me would not accept anything other than I had let them down. Today I think the way I felt had more to do with what I thought of myself than what others thought of me. It took a long time before I could give myself permission to be happy about anything. When we got back home, I told Mr. Burrell that I was never doing that again. Losing simply hurt too much. Mr. B has always been a smooth dude and he wasn’t even fazed. He gave me a pat on the back and with a little chuckle he said, “We’ll get ’em next year”.
Summer break and the excitement of being a high school senior helped ease the disappointment of the prior year’s loss, so I reluctantly re-enrolled in the Entrepreneurship contest again. Mr. Burrell helped me revamp my business plan, and we won another spot back to the state finals. Once again, I found myself back on stage with the three finalists. Being on stage this year was extra special, because the Tennessee Chapter Student President was my classmate, Patrice. Two of Mr. Burrell’s students were on the stage together.
Patrice announced the third place winner, and then the second, but she had not called my name yet. I’ve always imagined there was an extra degree of excitement when she announced that I won first place but I don’t remember. I was in shock. My head was banging and my ears were ringing. Someone handed me a trophy and somehow I made it back and plopped down in my seat.
Mr. Burrell was absolutely beaming. He looked at me and all he said was “see, I told you!” That’s about the point I lost it. I broke down in tears, sobbing uncontrollably. My mind was racing with images flashing in my head. I could see the abandoned house where I used to sit on the porch, waiting on certain people in my neighborhood to pay me to run “errands” for them. I saw the face of the store owner who grabbed me by the wrist when he caught me trying to steal a package of cookies. In many ways I still felt like that kid hustling for spare change but now I was sitting in a banquet with a winner’s trophy in my lap. Through all this I still managed to hear Mr. Burrell laughing, and his happiness sent my crying into triple overdrive. I wanted to thank the man sitting across the table that believed in me, but I couldn’t look at him. I was so happy and angry and shocked and embarrassed, I couldn’t look up so I kept my head on the table. We went on to the national competition and placed eleventh in the nation, but I was far from disappointed in that outcome. We were state champs and we had an absolutely wonderful time in New Orleans. I think Mr. Burrell was proud, and in the end, that’s all I really cared about.
I wrestled with personal demons for years after that competition, but I still reflect back on what it meant to have someone believe in me when I needed it most. Thanks, Mr. B. I hope you know your life made a difference in mine.