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The Most Embarrassing Moment of My Life

Without a doubt, my most embarrassing moment took place during the second week of my senior year in high school. My English teacher, Mrs. Ward, asked me to read aloud in class. Sounds easy, right? However, as I began to read, Mrs. Ward and the other students realized something I’d kept secret until that moment—I could barely read. Mrs. Ward responded very quickly and asked the student behind me to continue reading the page that I had started (For the duration of the school year, I was never asked to read aloud again. Whenever it was my turn to read, I was invariably skipped over by Mrs. Ward). I was so embarrassed, yet simultaneously relieved when she asked me to stop.

For the rest of the class period, I sat uncomfortably in my seat with my eyes fixed downward as if I were reading the book; I did not want to see my classmate’s faces. I sat anxiously waiting for the bell to ring hoping that my newly exposed secret would somehow stay inside the room. When the bell rang, I got out of my seat and high stepped to the door. As I hurried down the hallway, I heard a loud voice calling my name. I looked back and saw one of my classmates, Kelly Roberts, standing with a briefcase in one hand and pointing at me with the other. Her face was fixed into a victorious smirk. She walked up to me and said, “What are you going to do with your life? You can’t even read a book!” I only had one response, “I am going to be a Pro Football Player.” Kelly’s hunter-like sneer became more exaggerated as she said, “You are going to be a garbage man, a ditch digger.” With that, she laughed and walked away. Her words definitely pierced my heart and I have never forgotten them.


My Story

I wore the label of “Special Education Student” from first grade to the beginning of my seventh grade year. I was an excellent student, and I really enjoyed learning. In seventh grade, which was my first year at Kitty Hawk Jr. High School, I quickly learned that wearing the special education label was not “cool.” Hence, I started to sneak in and out of the side doors of the special education building, which was no easy task since the building was located in the center of the campus. If I were to be accepted by the “Cool Kids,” it was essential that they remained uninformed of my affiliation with special education. My peers in Special Ed. were no doubt social outcasts: Carol Hay, Docia Revels, and Julius Gomez. These were the students with the thick glasses, high water pants, non-matching clothes, and unattractive looks. They were known as the “Resource Click.”

The “Resource Click” had its own special place to hang out during lunch, which was right next to the garbage cans on the patio. Like most outcasts, this group received a barrage of verbal and sometimes physical abuse from the other students. I joined in with the verbal abuse, calling them names, even though I was in the same Special Education classes with them. Unfortunately for me, the cat got out of the bag during a fire drill.

When the fire alarm went off, I knew immediately that I was in trouble. I was very familiar with the alarm procedure and I knew that in a matter of seconds that I would be standing in front of the Special Education building for everyone to see. And sure enough, on a bright sunny day, I was standing there with the “Resource Click” for all to see. Several of my friends saw me, and it quickly spread throughout 7th grade that I was in Special Education, even though I adamantly denied it. I told my friends that I was sent to the building with a note for the teacher, but my friends began to call me “Special K”. Afterward, with all the fervor of an experienced litigator, I made my case for being removed from Special Education classes to my mom. Within days of the fire alarm incident, I was out of Special Education, never to return.

After I was moved to regular-paced courses, my grades went from A’s and B’s to F’s. Everything was very different in a normal class. There was no individual pace, no pairing on assignments, and very limited one-on-one time with the teacher. As a result, I could not keep up. Though I was a 7th grader, I was really at a 5th grade learning level due to the slow pace of learning in special education. This was compounded by the fact that I was dyslexic, which caused me to process information at the 29th percentile (which I found out much later when I was diagnosed at the age of 31). Soon, I developed a strong hatred for the skill I could not master—learning. My attitude toward learning went from one end of the spectrum to the other. I came to truly believe that I did not have the capacity to learn and therefore stopped trying. Thus, in order for me to secure passing grades, I started cheating, and continued to do so throughout all of junior high and high school. For my first three years of high school, I essentially did just enough to get by. It wasn’t until my senior year that I began to excel.


Senior Year

Dennis Kennedy in high school
Dennis Kennedy in high school
To say that I was excited about my senior year would be an understatement. It proved to be “THE OPPORTUNITY” for me to achieve all of my goals on the football field and in the classroom. That year, I was recognized as First Team All District, First Team All City, First Team All State, and as Defensive Player of the Year in the City of San Antonio. I even became the first USA Today Honorable Mention All American High School Football Player from my high school, Judson High, in Converse, Texas.

As for my academic goals, that year, for the first time ever, I increased my overall GPA from a 1.8 to a 2.0. This was accomplished by leveraging mostly honor students to do all of my course work throughout the entire year (except in my English Class). I essentially had a team of them, consisting of two individuals assigned to each class. The interesting thing was that I did not know any of these students prior to my senior year, nor did I ever socialize with them outside the hallways of our school. What little contact we did have was limited to discussing school work. They only supported me because of my celebrity status as a football player, and therefore wanted to be considered as my friends.

With their help, my senior year proved to be my best academic school year EVER. I had all A’s and B’s in each of my classes, except for English. Mrs. Ward gave me a C in that class, which was basically a “give me” grade, because I had only turned in one paper (which just so happened to be written by someone else) to her for the entire year. However, despite that, I still managed to finish the year with a GPA above a 2.0, the first time I had ever done so.


The Turning Point

Dennis Kennedy at the University of Houston
Dennis Kennedy at the University of Houston
In 1985, I was accepted into the University of Houston even though my high school GPA was a 2.0, I had scored only an 11 (out of 36) on the ACT, I was reading on a 5th to 6th grade level, and I could not write a sentence. As I walked on the campus for the first day of classes, I was in utter disbelief and felt extremely insecure. I had such a hard time visualizing myself as an actual “college student.” Insecurity hovered over me because I knew that I was not admitted on the basis of my academic achievement; I had none. My admission to U of H was secured by my status as a high school football star. So what was the point of attending college? The only answer was playing football.

Playing football came with many perks, including free grades. Even I was surprised to discover the degree to which “give me” grades were implemented—I was supplied with tests and class assignments. For my first two years in college, I took no math, science, or English classes. Everything, and I mean everything, was arranged for the student who was an asset to the athletic department, including a list of professors and courses we were to choose from. “Give me grades” kept me afloat academically, but the delusion of my accomplishment as a student was shattered the day I met Tricia Anstagio going into the summer before my third year.

Dennis and Tricia
Dennis and Tricia

Tricia was a fellow student and had the attitude of a drill sergeant times ten! One of our earliest conversations involved my academic progress, or lack thereof. What was my expected graduation date? How many hours did I have? What was on my degree plan? These were all questions I realized I didn’t have an answer to when Tricia began examining the shortcomings I’d willingly imposed on my life. She was stunned to see that my transcript listed over 30 hours of courses that would not count toward a degree, and that I had not declared major and no plans for actually earning a degree. Tricia and I sat down with my degree audit and began mapping out my options.

That same year I also met a wonderful mentor named Nick Anderson, whose persistence was like that of Jiminy Cricket for Pinocchio; he was relentless. Nick was a 32-year old former student from Tulane University who worked in sales. He’d also played football at the university level, but he challenged me to answer this question: “What’s God’s plan for your life? What’s life without football?” Once again, I had no answer. But with Nick’s guidance, I changed my perceptions and learned about integrity, which meant I wouldn’t be accepting any more “give me” grades. Cheating was holding me back.


Failure—A Strange Road to Success

In the fall of 1987, I was going into my third year of college. My encounters with Tricia and Nick made me reconsider the direction my life was going in, and I knew it was time to make a change. My third year at U of H was one of personally challenging failures and firsts. It was the first time I signed up for what I would call “regular classes.” The first time I would outright fail several of them. The first time I did not use the recommended list of classes that was given to all athletes. The first time I had actually attempted to study and not cheat. The first time I had tutors for every class. And it was the first time I would almost fail out of college. What I learned that year was not only that I was not on the “college level,” but also that I was so far behind that there was no way that I could keep up with my third year peers. I couldn’t read the books, keep up with the professors in class, and the diction of the people around me was so far above my head that I felt like I was drowning.

By spring semester of my third year, I had asked the athletic department to “supply” me with tutors and received my first. I will never forget the first time I sat down with him. He was a senior at U of H and told me that he’d been accepted into law school at the University of Michigan. I then realized that I could have studied for 100 hours, and I would still have never been able to pass those classes. I was very distraught and disgruntled, and instead of actively attempting to better my academics, one of the first things I did was look for someone to blame for my predicament. Of course, it wasn’t anyone’s fault, but I was in a state of denial and ignorance, and rather than taking responsibility for myself, blaming anyone else seemed to be the better choice.

Dennis Kennedy & mom, Freddia Kennedy
Dennis Kennedy & mom, Freddia Kennedy

Eventually, I came to my senses and decided that I needed to mix what I called “fake” classes with my “regular” classes. Though I had stopped cheating and accepting papers from the athletic department, the fake classes were easy and an otherwise safety net against the avalanche of regular classes I was failing. When I’d first signed up for the latter classes, I didn’t qualify for many of the core level courses, such as freshman English, and was placed in their remedial counterparts. Instead, I started a semester in the Fundamentals of English course taught by Professor Johnson, with whom I would spend a total of three more semesters (Fall ‘87, Spring ‘89, Summer ‘89 ) before passing. After failing the class’s exit exam three times, Professor Johnson took an interest in me and encouraged me academically so that I could pass his class. He would meet with me one on one, twice a week and would teach me the course for an hour and twenty minutes. Finally, I was able to pass Fundamentals of English. I would also later spend five semesters in English 1, dropping the course on the last possible day my first semester, making the grades of F, D- and D+ my second, third and fourth semesters, respectively. It wasn’t until my last attempt in English 1 that I finally made an A.

While struggling in the classroom, I also found myself struggling on the football field. With the change of coaches in 1987 came less playing time for me and few starting opportunities going into my senior year. The struggles on the football field really made me realize that I needed a Plan B. In my fifth year of college, I changed my major to Political Science and Economics, and eventually walked the stage in 1991 with a GPA of 2.1 and three degrees in Physical Education, Political Science, and Economics. For this, I want to publically thank Tricia & Nick, who both challenged me and encouraged me to achieve. They believed in me long before I believed in myself.


Back in the Saddle

About three years after I graduated, I decided to pursue an MBA. I went to see a counselor at the University of Houston business school, where there was a sign-up sheet. I signed my name, and waited for it to be called. The counselor who chose me welcomed me into her office with a smiling face and told me my decision to join the program was a good one—until she printed out my transcripts. Her demeanor changed, and she said “not only does your GPA not qualify for our MBA Program, but you would not even be allowed into our undergraduate program based on your GPA.” She handed me the transcripts, laughed, and told me that there was nothing she could do for me. As I walked out of her office, I heard her say “you should have thought about the MBA program when you were making all of those F’s.” I left the building shocked and dismayed that I had been laughed at and was extremely discouraged.

Two weeks later, I returned to the business school, followed the same procedure of signing my name on the sign-up sheet and patiently waiting to be called, only this time, I prayed that I didn’t get the same counselor I had before. Fortunately, I was called by another counselor by the name of Frank Kelly (who now oversees the academic counselor center in the business school). He followed the same script as the other counselor, telling me my decision to pursue an MBA was a good one. He then printed off my transcripts, looked at me, and asked “are you sure that you want to get an MBA?” I nodded, but he told me that I could not get into the MBA program with a 2.1. I asked him what I should do to get into the program, and unlike my previous counselor, he told me what I needed to do. I would have to return to undergraduate school and work to get at least a 3.0, and then get a 550 on the GMAT. Then I would automatically be accepted into the program. I was grateful that Frank had given me the information necessary for me to achieve my goals.

Frank Kelley & Dennis Kennedy
Frank Kelley & Dennis Kennedy

After speaking with Frank, I put some serious thought into what it was that I really wanted to do. Getting an MBA was really important to me, and as much as I didn’t like the idea of returning for a fourth undergraduate degree, I knew that getting into the MBA program would open up doors for me, so I decided to pursue it. I went back to school for three years to get yet another undergraduate degree, and in the first year of my return, I realized that I still had issues with writing and reading. At the age of 31, I decided to go to a campus testing center, where a series of tests were conducted on me, and I was diagnosed with dyslexia. Now it made sense! All these years of struggling to learn and the feelings of perpetual academic inadequacies surrounding my inabilities to properly learn, read, and write were explained by a diagnosis that was given to me in about six weeks.

In 1999, I graduated with a BBA in management with an overall GPA of 3.6 in the business school. A week after graduation, I took the GMAT, scored a 560, and was automatically admitted into the MBA program, which I started that summer. I made the decision to take a heavy load of coursework for the summer and the fall, which enabled me to graduate fall of 1999.

Dennis Kennedy Transcript (pages 1-9)
Dennis Kennedy Transcript (pages 10-16)


One in a Million

What are the odds of someone with an undiagnosed learning disability, who is unable to write a sentence and who is reading on a 5th to 6th grade reading level, going to college and graduating with 5 degrees, including an MBA with an emphasis in finance? Along the way, I conquered my condemning mindset and self-dialogue which affected me from childhood to my adult life. I’ve gone from reading at a 5-6th grade level as a high school senior to becoming a professor at three universities (University of Houston Downtown, Texas Southern University, and University of Texas at San Antonio). I went from a person who had no vision outside of football to a person with many visions.