TENNERTON – The Buckhannon-Upshur Middle School gym was unusually quiet Thursday as each student absorbed the message being delivered about succeeding in life.
Motivational speaker Brittany Wagner shared stories and events and offered them advice on how to succeed in life – regardless of their surrounding circumstances.
“I want you to understand you can be anything you absolutely want to be,” Wagner said. “The most important thing for you to be is yourself.”
Wagner said she is from Mississippi, adding that Mississippi is the poorest state in the country.
“We don’t have as much money as other states in the country, in the second poorest county in the United States of America. The median income for a family in that county is $11,612 per year,” she said. “That’s not a lot of money to live on.”
Wagner said in that county, she worked with a child named Ollie who grew up in a trailer.
“When Ollie was 5 years old, he was laying in his bed, and he heard gun shots. He walked outside and his father had a gun and had just killed his mother. Then, his father turned the gun on himself. At 5 years old, Ollie was homeless, had no money, no support system, and he had just gone through a very traumatic experience.”
She said through football, Ollie learned how to become something, how to do something, how to make something of himself and how to overcome a very horrible and tragic situation. She said she hopes through the telling of the story of her life, Ollie’s life and others’ lives, she can inspire the students to make better decisions for themselves.
“I think it is very important for you to show up – show up every day to class and be prepared,” Wagner said. “You are not going to be able to do your best if you don’t show up. You need to show up and be present – not buried in your cell phones. We are so engaged in our phones and technology, that we forget how to show up in our real life.”
Wagner said another key to success is kindness.
“You have to be kind to people who may not be like you, may not look like you, or act like you. You don’t know their circumstances. Sometimes it’s a little bit harder to be kind to someone you don’t understand,” she said.
Then, she shared a story about a boy from Eight Mile, Michigan – a very dangerous area, she said.
“They were bussing students in a school in a dangerous area to a better school in a better area, so the students could get a better education and make their lives better. They began having some trouble at the new school because they were different students from different walks of life. One football player was about to be kicked out of school for fighting, and I talked to him. I told him, ‘here you are in a school trying to better your life and now, you are behaving in a way that is about to get you kicked out. Help me understand that.’”
Wagner said the boy asked her if she wanted to know the truth and proceeded to tell her he was homeless.
“I am homeless, and I live in the bus station,” the boy told Wagner. “I have two pairs of clothes, and I put one set on and I put one under the bench. Then I ride an hour each way to this school each day. I don’t eat unless I am eating in the cafeteria for lunch. When I leave school, I am starving. When I leave on Friday, I don’t know when I will eat again. I can’t take a shower. The only time I get to take a shower is after practice in the locker room. I play football because I hope to one day earn a college scholarship, but I don’t have cleats. I don’t look like anyone, I don’t smell like anyone, I don’t dress like anyone. Last year, I missed 165 days of school. I’m not as smart as everyone, but I am trying.”
Wagner said the boy told her he’d been having difficulty at the new school with peers.
“They don’t know my name, but they call me ‘ugly man,’” the boy had recounted to Wagner, “so, I take it and I take it and when I can’t take it any longer, I hit someone.”
She said she took him to the gym where the team was meeting and she asked the team to sit down.
“He stood before his teammates and he told them his story,” Wagner said. “And he ended his talk by saying his name was K.J. and said he would appreciate it if everyone would call him by his name.”
She said she thought that was amazing.
“His team stood up and clapped and gave him the shirts off their backs,” Wagner said. “He never slept in that bus station again because his teammates brought him home to sleep in their homes and eat with them.”
“K.J. graduated and is now in college because of that moment where he asked his friends, his teammates, to treat him like a human being and they responded,” she added.
Wagner said after traveling across the country, she knows there is a K.J. in every room and in every gym.
Another attribute she said people need to possess to be successful is a willingness to ask for help.
“We all have strengths and we all have weaknesses,” Wanger said. “We need to ask for help. If we have a struggle, don’t drown – don’t quit – ask for help.”
The last thing Wagner said everyone needs is to have a dream or a vision.
“I could never in a million years dreamed this life up for myself,” she said. “I always had a dream. Sometimes we let the boxes of our life tell us what we can and cannot do. Don’t check the boxes of your life. If you didn’t have to say if you were male, female, rich, poor, black or white, what could you be? You have the opportunity to do anything you would like. Have the dream – have the vision.”
Wagner said the key is to put an effort into the opportunities you receive.
“Everyone is going to make mistakes – but it’s what you do afterwards that matters,” she said.
Wagner said for the last two years, she has been traveling around and working with school districts and students.
“Netflix provided a large platform for me to travel all over the country and advocate for education and for young people in this country,” she said. “Buckhannon reached out to me and asked if I would be available to come in and speak to their students today, and that’s why I am here.
“My message is really a motivational one that everybody has an opportunity as long as they show up and put effort into that opportunity, we can really become anything we want,” she added. “I am just a girl from Mississippi. Who would ever think I would have been given the platform I have been given?”
According to her biography, Wagner is a nationally-recognized athletic academic counselor, life coach and motivational speaker. She gained worldwide fame in 2016 as the television star of the hit Netflix documentary “Last Chance U.” Known for giving “troublemakers” their last chance at making it to the next level, Wagner was the vivacious, mentor and mother-figure to these young men – oftentimes the driving factor behind their future successes.
For the past year, Wagner has traveled all over the United States as a motivational speaker. In the fall of 2017, she launched her own company, 10 Thousand Pencils. Through 10KP, she works individually with high school and college athletes, administrators, counselors, and teachers on academic success strategies and life skills.
In February of 2018, she developed her own podcast “Sharpen Up with Brittany Wagner.”
Wagner earned her undergraduate and master’s degrees from Mississippi State University and currently resides in Birmingham, Alabama.