A peculiar philosophy exists among some students at Brainerd High School. Somehow, mediocre classroom performance equates to social intelligence.
In this misguided state, popularity and acceptance are the curriculum too many are interested in studying.
Brainerd, on the outskirts of Chattanooga, is a school lauded for its community partnerships and focus on student achievement. But, like most schools, it grapples with its share of students focused on a different agenda – students who try to foster an environment where mediocre grades elicit reinforcing chuckles from classmates, inappropriate behavior strengthens reputations and the future focuses more on escaping the cloud of education than on the pursuit of a college degree.
Torrey Sales knows the game all too well. And he decided not to play.
As an eighth-grader preparing for his high school career, Sales took account of his life – where he had been, where he wanted to be and how he was going to get there.
The eldest of eight children in a single-parent household, Sales knew there were some challenges within his life he couldn’t really affect. But there were many he could, namely the influence of friends with whom he surrounded himself.
Those friends – some of them lifelong – didn’t share his vision for excellence. They didn’t share his ambition for accomplishment. They didn’t share his drive to make a meaningful contribution to society.
Sales didn’t speak of his intention with his friends.
He didn’t bring them together. He didn’t detail his plan.
He just did his own thing, without them.
“His reputation precedes him,” first-year Brainerd Principal Uras Agee III said. “You don’t have to know him to know him. He makes excelling cool.”
It seems everybody knows Torrey Sales, a soft-spoken 18-year-old senior Army Junior Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (JROTC) cadet who has long screamed, “Success!” through his performance in the classroom and in life. His knack for achievement and flair for organization are what those who know him say help make Sales such a standout.
That’s why Brainerd administrators routinely turn to Sales – currently the salutatorian of his class with a 3.939 GPA – to represent the 745-member student body and interact with visiting VIPs. That’s why a Chattanooga non-profit group that advocates youth achievement featured Sales in a promotional campaign in which his photo was plastered on billboards around the city and why he’s called on to share his story with local children as a mentor.
That’s why the senior Army instructor for Brainerd’s JROTC program tapped him as this year’s cadet battalion commander. And that’s why Sales was selected over hundreds of other students last summer to introduce the guest speaker at the culminating event of the JROTC National Junior Leadership and Academic Bowl (JLAB) held at George Mason University in Virginia.
“Torrey’s always quiet and reserved,” said retired Maj. Wilford Blowe, Brainerd’s senior Army instructor. “He’s not loud and boisterous, or like he has to be seen. It’s only an initial impression. But when called upon, he can certainly rise to the occasion.”
Sales’ siblings range in age from 2 to 14. Growing up, his mother, who is disabled, relied on him to help tend to their needs – and still does.
The demands of his family forced Sales into a de facto leadership role within his home.
“I never really had a chance to be a child,” he said.
But Sales doesn’t necessarily consider it a disadvantage. He doesn’t complain or express remorse over missing out on playful activities other kids his age enjoyed, because he had obligations to his family. Instead, he sees the role in which he was placed as part of life. His family needed him.
Being a leader at home is largely what made JROTC attractive to Sales. He believed the citizenship, character and professional development program could make him an even stronger leader.
Joining as a freshman, Sales said the lessons taught in JROTC quickly led to widespread positive impacts on his life. He learned to prioritize. He learned to work more quickly. He learned to focus.
“It motivated me to want to get to the top,” he said.
Sales’ selection as Brainerd’s cadet battalion commander this year was somewhat of an easy choice, Blowe said.
Besides JLAB, Sales is a member of the program’s rifle, Raider and drill teams. But he has proven to be much more to the other 100 or so cadets, Blowe said.
Sales often is looked up to by younger students, and he influences them, if not directly, by simply setting an example in his studies, in how he treats others and in how he carries himself.
Blowe calls Sales the second-best cadet he’s had in the program since it started in 1994. The only reason he’s not No. 1: “This young man (from 2002) was a real go-getter. It was almost like JROTC was his life. He lived here,” Blowe said.
Sales, though, has an edge in several areas. For one, he’s more academically focused.
“Though he spends a lot of time here, his life doesn’t revolve around it,” Blowe said.
Sales has too many demands to allow it. Besides school and helping at home before and after class, he recently took on a job working at a local Little Caesars Pizza most evenings to earn extra money and gain work experience. His nights are consumed with homework.
Juggling it all isn’t easy, Sales admits.
“Sometimes, I just make the sacrifice and go on two or three hours of sleep a night. That’s it,” he said. “When I come to school, I’m sometimes tired. But there’s that thought in my mind that I need to stay motivated and that I have to go through all this to get to where I want to be. I just push through. Though it’s a lot at the moment, I can take all I’ve been through and turn it into something great.”
Even though he’s not a soldier, Sales is a big believer in the seven Army values by which soldiers lead their lives. He’s particularly keen on the value of selfless service, which entails putting the needs of others before your own.
The ability to help others has and continues to be a significant part of Sales’ routine, whether with his family, his fellow classmates and cadets or the friends from whom he distanced himself years ago. He has even reached out to some of them in the time since, wanting to help them “stay on the right path with me.”
“Most people I hang around now are those who want to do something in life,” Sales said.
These are people like William Chalk, a fellow senior and JROTC cadet, who has been friends with Sales since they were in fifth grade. Chalk, one of the friends Sales still hung around after middle school, credits Sales with spurring much of his own success.
He remembers seeing a change in Sales as high school loomed, and he decided to follow suit. The two have pushed each other over the years, seeing who can score best on tests and other schoolwork. And when Chalk’s grades slipped some during their junior year, Sales was there to help him study and make improvements.
“I used to be in the same predicament and was falling to the bad influence crowd,” said Chalk, who’s ranked fifth in the senior class. “But by staying by each other’s side, we were able to stay on the positive side and away from the violence and any other bad influences we had. When I started to see him act a different way, I felt I needed to fix myself as well. If he wasn’t around, I’d still be in the bad crowd.”
Sales wants to be an engineer. He’s always had a passion for tinkering with gadgets and trying to figure out how things work. When the disc drive on his Xbox 360 stopped working one time, Sales pried open the game system, figured out the problem and got it functioning again.
“I just like fixing problems,” he said. “Somebody might say, ‘What’s wrong with this?’ and I try to figure it out.”
Sales hopes to pursue his profession in the Army, either through the senior ROTC program at a university in Tennessee or through the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. He’ll be the first in his family to attend college.
Sales’ success doesn’t surprise those who have seen his development in recent years.
“He’s one that you can see potential and capability,” Blowe said. “It’s a matter of him following through.”
Those who know Torrey Sales describe him in the context of being a model -- model student, model cadet, model friend, model son.
Peer pressure makes the challenge of being a strong student even more challenging at Brainerd High School, many say. But some, like Sales, have managed to deflect the negativity and prevent bad influences from derailing their focus.
In fact, Sales’ record of good grades and dedication in and out of the classroom are so well known among the student body that classmates who attempt to cultivate apathy no longer waste their time on him.
“It’s known that Torrey Sales is going to make good grades,” said Mark Hamby, a senior English teacher. “I wish more students could be like him. It’s a testament to him that he didn’t give into temptations.”
Shortly after Agee became principal at Brainerd, he sent a letter to students and parents titled “On a quest to be the best.” In it, he addresses some of the challenges impeding progress at the school but makes it clear that for the school’s administration, “Students are our business.”
From a personal standpoint, Sales has broadened the scope of that statement. Through an organization called On Point – incidentally, a familiar military term denoting focus – Sales has been able to tell other teens and adolescents about his struggles and how he manages to overcome adversity.
And how he made a tough decision when he was their age that brightened his outlook, and how they can, too.
Sales was one of only a handful of teens chosen to be part of On Point’s billboard campaign titled “The Next Greatest Generation.” Featuring a student’s face and the words, “This is my story,” the goal was to drive people to the organization’s website to read about how those individuals are making good choices and setting examples for others.
“I never thought I would have a billboard in Chattanooga, where I was born,” said Sales, who’s still taken aback by seeing his smiling face towering over the city.
“People will always remember me for doing something good. That’s what I always wanted to do. Maybe somebody will see that one day and say, ‘I want to do that.’ They’ll get interested in opportunities and programs that are open to them, and they can change their life.”