Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Competing in any sort of competition nationally is an accomplishment reserved for those who are the most dedicated, the most passionate, and the absolute best in their field. So imagine my surprise when I found myself competing at the Future Business Leaders of America National Leadership Convention in the Entrepreneurship category, a topic which I know absolutely nothing about. It was a strange two days.

My journey began a few months ago when I decided to enter the Entrepreneurship competition because I felt that, as Vice President of the club, I should probably participate in it and Entrepreneurship seemed to be an easy category. My previous experience with entrepreneurship was Maromi Movies, a company that produced some of the best films of all time and pulled in $300 in profits. That seems impressive for a bunch of sixth graders, but realize that all the cash came from my and my friends’ parents, which I’m pretty sure is not how Starbucks did it.

The Entrepreneurship test varied from common sense questions to ones about specific dates for turning in specific tax forms, which I have never done in my life. I fully expected to fail the test miserably and be comforted knowing that I do not possess the mental capabilities to start my own business, which is kind of a relief because that seems like a huge hassle. I would have had a better chance taking a test on 19th century Liberian woodwork, which, sadly, was not one of the possible categories. But I received an email a few weeks later saying that I had scored high enough to advance to the state competition. This in itself really wasn’t much of an accomplishment because the test was taken on a computer, so anyone living south of Atlanta could not participate.

I chose not to go to state because I didn’t really want to. I think that was the extent of my excuse; I didn’t have much of an actual reason to not go, but I really didn’t want to. I figured that was the end of my run in the Entrepreneurship competition and I’d have to wait until next year to randomly guess answers on the test again. But I wasn’t done just yet. I got an email after the state convention saying that my score on the initial test was so high I would advance to Nationals automatically and be put on a Super Team with two other high-scorers. What I found odder than advancing to Nationals was the fact that the organization was childish enough to call something a Super Team. I decided to go to the National convention because I had already skipped the State one for no good reason, it would be interesting to see FBLA kids from across the country, and, most of all, it was held in Atlanta this year so I could leave at any time I wanted.

Day 1

I arrived at the Marriott Marquis around noon on a Thursday to find the lobby throbbing with students from all parts of the country (I later found out there were over 7,000 people attending the conference). Occasionally I could spot someone not affiliated with FBLA who was clearly confused at the sight of so many teenagers. They probably thought this was some sort of shoplifting convention or massive drug deal, or maybe that the pay-per-view porn was free that week. I briefly met the three other kids from Alpharetta there, including my roommate, before I went up to my room to drop my bag off. For the planned four-day event I brought two outfits and enough boxers to last three days because I was planning to leave early and also because I wasn’t too concerned with impressing anyone from North Dakota with an extravagant variety of t-shirts.

The planned events for the first day were a Georgia FBLA meeting at 12:30, my Entrepreneurship multiple-choice test at 4:00, and the National Opening Ceremony at 7:00. With my half hour to kill I went to my room, moved a chair in front of a window, and stared outside like an insane person. On the roof of the office building adjacent the Marriott was a man sitting underneath an air duct, likely hiding from the police. We looked at each other for a while and eventually he left, probably to begin work on his mission to murder me.

The Georgia meeting was my first real taste of what serious FBLA kids are like. It seems like kids who are interested in becoming business leaders would be somewhat intelligent, but realize that the club’s only requirement is a twenty dollar bill and you can get one of those for masturbating in a cup. It’s clear that at the Alpharetta High School chapter not many people care about it because of the 100+ members, maybe 15 show up to the meetings. But there are kids who pursue FBLA with all their heart; kids who would rather spend an afternoon studying up on business ethics than having any sort of fun. Some of these more serious kids were running for FBLA southern regional offices and had to awkwardly converse with everyone as if they, or the listener, cared at all. They could have saved a lot of time by saying, “I’m from a county in Georgia you’ve never heard of. Vote for me, because if I don’t get this regional office I’ll probably slaughter hogs on a farm for the rest of my life.”

A good example of the senses of humor these kids have came during the meeting when the State FBLA director said, “Girls need to wear hose with skirts. If you don’t have any, ask me and I’ll buy you some hose.” There was a brief pause while the kids put it together. You could imagine the whispers: “Hose is like hoes, which are like prostitutes.” “Oh, I get it now.” A small pocket of people began laughing, then another, and another, until it was spreading like the wave at a sporting event and the whole room was in stitches. Those south Georgians hadn’t had that much fun since baseball got desegregated.

After the wake of hilarity subsided, each student was given a gift bag from FBLA along with $25. I still have no idea what the money was for, but I was handed a twenty dollar bill and a five dollar bill and I didn’t ask any questions. Inside the goodie bag were schedules, and FBLA magnet, and some items to welcome out-of-towners to the fine state of Georgia. We got a paper fan that said, “Georgia FBLA Welcomes You to HOTlanta,” which is interesting because nobody calls Atlanta that. We got a pin of a peach holding up a sign saying, “Y’all come back now, ya hear?” because that is exactly how everyone from Georgia speaks. And we got a bunch of salt water taffy because someone apparently thought Atlanta is located in the northeast.

The FBLA Convention program included an example of the unintelligence of many FBLA members. It said there were people at the convention from the Virgin Islands. Leaving the Virgin Islands in the middle of June to come to Atlanta can be seen as nothing but an enormous mistake or a massive blunder. The only rational explanation is that they were under the impression that the convention was held in the lost city of Atlantis.

Once the meeting ended I got to meet the third member of my Entrepreneurship team. The Super Team was me, another kid from Alpharetta, and a third mystery person from another school. I imagined the mystery member would be Jessica Alba, perhaps taking a break from the movies to enroll in a few courses at South Forsyth. I was disappointed to find that instead of Ms. Alba my teammate was a black kid named Chris from Riverwood. He was a solid guy, but he did not look much like Jessica Alba.

Our other teammate suggested we eat lunch together and instead of saying, “What? No. That’s going to be really awkward,” I went along with it because I had nothing else to do. We walked over to the Peachtree Center Mall to find somewhere to eat. My teammate and I chose Atlanta Bread Company. To that, Chris said, “I’m just gonna go to KFC,” which caused me to almost laugh out loud because stereotypes are funny. I can’t blame him, though. I did choose perhaps the world’s third whitest eatery after the ill-fated Bull Connor’s Corn Dogs and California Pizza Kitchen.

After our meal we went back to our rooms to get ready for our competition. We had to wear formal business attire for it, even though we would be taking our test huddled around a computer and hardly anyone would see us, but FBLA is more interested in having kids look like they’re businessmen than having kids know anything about business. I put on my dress shirt, tie, and coat, looked in the mirror and thought, “Wow, that guy looks like a moron.” I have no business wearing such clothing. The outfit that I have worn every single day this summer is a white t-shirt and black athletic shorts. If I go somewhere fancy like a grocery store then I’ll throw on a different t-shirt. Dressing up makes me feel like I’m wearing a costume, like I went to a Party City and said, “Yeah, the scary demon is okay, but I really want to look like a 50 year old man.” But, nevertheless, I went down to the lobby, my too-big shoes flopping along with each step, to prepare for the test.

One of my teammates brought some notes on Entrepreneurship for us to review. Stuff about S-Corporations, angel investors, and market penetration, which I thought was a pornographic film about the New York Stock Exchange. Finally it was time for us to take the test. The competition had two parts: first a 100 question multiple choice test; then the top 10 teams advanced to the next round in which they were given problematic entrepreneurship situations and had to give presentations about them. Before we entered the Imperial Ballroom to take our test a friendly black guy working at the convention said, “Where y’all from?” “Georgia,” I responded. “Ooh! Is Georgia gon’ bring it home?” “Georgia is going to bring it home,” I assured him with the confidence of someone who has no idea what he’s talking about. We entered the ballroom, an enormous space likely used to house elephants in their off-season, sat down at a computer and started the test, making all sorts of assumptions, guesses, and inferences. Occasionally we would disagree on a question and have a small argument that would end when I realized I had no basis for my position and I would give up because I wasn’t that concerned about it. We were the third team to finish and felt confident. The same guy from before was outside the doors waiting for us and said, “Did Georgia bring it home?” “Georgia brought it home,” I said. He happily shouted, “The trophy is not gonna leave Georgia this year!” I can only imagine the look on his face when he found out the next day when results were posted that the trophy would go far, far away from Georgia.

The next event of the day was the Opening Ceremony, which turned out to be perhaps the strangest thing I have ever taken part in. All 7,000 attendees were bussed over to the Georgia World Congress Center, which, I suppose, is where the World Congress would meet if it existed. We were a little early, so my group stood in the lobby and I watched the behavior of other FBLA kids. Some of them wore jackets covered in pins, up to forty of them, from various FBLA events, but from the looks of the kids I could assume each pin symbolized one point of their SAT score. Eventually everyone was funneled into a huge, dark convention room that was full of smoke and terrible music. FBLA officers walked around handing out glow necklaces because the organization wanted to prove just how much money it could waste. The seats were arranged by state, and behind Georgia was Washington, a collection of kids who chanted their state’s name over and over again for no reason whatsoever. I thought that was strange, but then the ceremony began.

I have never been to either, but I can assume this ceremony was somewhat like a mix between a Hannah Montana concert and a disturbing cult meeting. There were flashing lights and loud music and even an announcer who sounded like he wanted desperately to leave. Someone sang the national anthem for no apparent reason, unless, maybe, to assure us that we hadn’t been part of a David Copperfield illusion and were still, in fact, in the United States. The National FBLA officers each gave speeches that floored me with how generic they were. One of them wanted everyone to cheer for “anyone who has had a dream or goal.” You might as well cheer for anyone who has ever breathed or eaten bread. Just when I was about to completely tune out the ceremony, they brought in the motivational speaker.

Motivational speakers are an interesting breed. Whereas homeless people have given up on life, with motivational speakers life has given up on them. The motivation most speakers achieve is just by being on stage; listeners think, “Wait, she’s getting paid for this? Anyone can do that. I can do it!” Her presentation mostly consisted of defining the terms hope and believe. She also referenced Beanie Babies, Mike Tyson’s ear, and “Who Let the Dogs Out?” letting us all know she has been giving this same speech for eight years. Then there was a weird call-and-response portion, where she would say, “I am not average!” and everyone would chant back, “I am not average!” and I thought, that’s correct; most of you are below average. Then came the dance contest.

I have never been affiliated with any business, or employed at all for that matter, but I’m fairly confident dance contests have nothing to do with business unless your business runs dance contests. But anyway, the speaker called five kids on stage and had a dance contest. The winner, determined by audience applause, won a t-shirt with the speaker’s “Children are the Future” message that he is never going to wear.

The ceremony ended and on the way back to the hotel I witnessed something absolutely extraordinary in its stupidity. While walking with Mrs. Davies, my FBLA advisor, a girl, looking distraught, said, “Excuse me, ma’am. Do you know where the Hyatt is? I’m so lost.” It seems like a legitimate question, that is until you consider that directly across the street from us, maybe 20 feet away, was a large building with a big sign on it that clearly said Hyatt. As in, THIS IS THE HYATT HOTEL, YOU IDIOT. The girl found her way to the hotel, and once inside probably asked her own roommate if she had seen anyone who looked like her roommate.

It was past 10p.m. by the time we were back in the hotel and every restaurant in the mall was closed. I was hungry and figured I’d get room service. My previous experience with room service was a positive one. It was at a Holiday Inn, where I received a decent meal at a reasonable price. What I did not realize that night was that the Holiday Inn is a really crappy hotel when compared to the Marriott Marquis. If you’re trying to impress someone you’d take them to a Marriott Marquis. If you’re trying to murder someone you’d take them to a Holiday Inn. So I went to the room and ordered some chicken fingers and a fruit plate. The person on the other end of the phone didn’t tell me how much it would cost, only that it would be up in 45 minutes. I expected it to be expensive, which for chicken fingers and a fruit plate is around $12. An hour and a half later the food showed up. The hotel employee who brought it asked for $32. No, no, I thought, I ordered the chicken fingers, not the lobster fingers. I was so stunned I paid the ridiculous amount and stared at my meal in shock. It was a good thing FBLA gave me $25 or else I would have had to rob the hotel employee just to pay for it. I took a picture of the plate to remember it because it was probably the most expensive meal I’d ever eaten. The picture looked like it belonged on a children’s menu at a restaurant near a beach called something like the Crazy Crab and the meal should cost $3.99. The chicken fingers looked and tasted exactly like the same chicken fingers served in restaurants and school cafeterias across the country, which is to say they were incredibly delicious. They gave me a decent amount, six tenders, and the fruit was good. Was the meal worth $32? Maybe if it had included a rare baseball card or ticket to the moon. Was it tasty? Very much so.

Day 2

My roommate and I woke up at the crack of 11 to catch The Price is Right. The other two kids in our group woke much earlier so they could attend a seminar on business etiquette. After the seminar they called my roommate to say they were surprised to find the seminar boring, which is like getting hit in the crotch with a motorcycle and being surprised it hurts.

We all decided to get lunch at Quizno’s and I was looking forward to a meal that didn’t cost as much as a back-alley kidney transplant. We walked down a few Atlanta streets in our business attire, probably looking like the results of some failed Georgia Tech experiment to turn children into adults. While in line at Quizno’s, a girl, a fellow FBLA member, asked us where we are from. “Georgia,” I said. “Where are you from?” “Arkansas.” After a lengthy pause I said, “Cool…” This is interesting because being from Arkansas is not cool. If Bill Clinton was never President most people probably wouldn’t even know it’s a state. But that’s how pretty much every conversation went at the convention: bland statements of locations. I wish there were something at all for us to talk about, but what am I going to say? “Hello, I’m from Georgia. Business is the best. Perhaps we could have a lengthy discussion of U.S.-China trade relations?” The problem with that is I don’t know anything about business and most FBLA kids couldn’t locate China on a map.

After lunch the two kids who attended a seminar earlier tried to convince my roommate and me to go to one that afternoon. I declined because I don’t think anyone has ever left a seminar thinking anything other than, “Well that’s an hour I’ll never get back.” My roommate and I instead chose to go to the Peachtree Center Mall. It was a standard mall, meaning there really isn’t much to see inside. There was a store called Georgia Electronics and Gifts, but, based on the merchandise and unsettling employee, should have been called Electronics and Gifts that were Stolen in Georgia. Located downstairs in the mall was a small convenience store that sold a range of items from school supplies to t-shirts to lottery tickets. The lottery tickets were located right by the entrance to the store away from any employee, which is why a particularly speedy man so easily stole one. He walked right by the store, reached out a hand, and helped himself to a lottery ticket. It caught me so off-guard that my only response was to think, “Well okay. I’m pretty sure you have to pay for those.” You have to wonder what the point of stealing a lottery ticket is, considering the slim odds. He could have stolen a hat with Atlanta written on it. At least then he would have been guaranteed a hat.

Before leaving the mall I picked up a copy of the New York Times because I wanted to read the news and I wanted to feel like I was better than everyone else while doing it. I don’t often get the chance to read such a publication in an environment where I don’t care if people see me and think, “That kid probably doesn’t understand half the things in there,” which is true. I only wanted to read the movie reviews. I went up to my room, flipped through the paper, was disappointed with the lack of comic strips, and decided to head down to the lobby to attempt some summer reading. I found a comfortable chair and tried to read but was continually distracted with watching FBLA kids. You could identify them by the nametags they proudly displayed for no reason. Did they expect someone to approach them saying, “Well hello there. I wasn’t going to introduce myself but now that I see your name is Mitch I’d like to offer you a hundred dollars.”

Just when I was really enjoying the sights of the Marriott lobby I received word of how the Super Team did in our competition. The news came from my advisor as a text message, perhaps the coldest form of communication, and read: Just posted. I’m shocked! AHS is not in top 10. You may have been no. 11. I’m so sorry!

I waited for the rush of emotions to strike: shock, disappointment, embarrassment, maybe even a stream of tears. I waited and waited, preparing myself for the emotions, until nothing happened and I realized that I wasn’t really that concerned about the loss. I gave it my best shot and wasn’t expecting much. At least I’d get to go home early and use my own toilet.

I checked the score sheet to verify the results. I scanned it up and down, looking for my name like a 6th grader hoping he made the basketball team, but my name was not on the list. Several kids from California advanced to the next round, probably due to their entrepreneurship experience running surf shacks. I went back up to the room to tell my teammate. “Did you hear the news?” “Yeah,” he said, looking dejected. I looked him in the eyes and said, “The dream is over.” It was true. The dream of taking home the Entrepreneurship trophy was gone, which for me was less of a dream and more of a lukewarm interest. But the convention was far from over. We still had to attend a Southern Regional meeting, which, considering the Southern region was essentially the old Confederacy, I assumed would include planning secession from the rest of FBLA. Sadly it did not. It only included a brutal assault of boring speeches.

Each of the kids in the running for an FBLA Regional office delivered a speech. There was a one-minute time limit, which makes you wonder if the speeches are really necessary at all, except for the students to prove that even though they’re from Kentucky they can form simple sentences. But if they eliminated the speeches, the people in charge of FBLA would probably then realize that the regional meeting was unnecessary, then they’d realize that the state meetings were unnecessary, and so on until they realized the entire convention was kind of a waste of gasoline. In one of the speeches a kid compared FBLA to hunting by saying that they both require planning. With that logic you could say FBLA is like ordering a pizza or kidnapping someone.

The speeches went on for almost two hours, becoming more and more boring. I was forced to amuse myself by thinking that instead of Future Business Leaders of America perhaps this club should be called Current Boring Speech Givers of America. After the speeches came a question and answer session. One person asked for the candidates to state their greatest strengths and weaknesses. Instantly some FBLA employee rushed to the microphone to say that the candidates could point out their strengths, but mentioning their weaknesses would be too negative. It’s true, though. Those candidates would have had a hard time getting any votes if they revealed their true weaknesses of dental hygiene and operating automobiles that were manufactured after 1945.

After the regional meeting we walked over to the CNN Center to eat dinner, which is an idea that really shouldn’t make any sense. But odder than finding restaurants in the building was noticing that also inside was a hair salon. One can imagine the conversation that lead up to that idea.

“Sir, we have everything we need to build our hair salon. We’ve found a great location in a new upscale suburban development. Research has shown a strong demand for a hair salon.”

“A suburban development? That’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard. Let’s put it in the lobby of a cable news channel.”

Who knows; maybe they do plenty of business there. But I can tell you that personally when I need a haircut my first choice isn’t the headquarters of a television network.

After the CNN Center I went back to the hotel, my parents picked me up, and I was out of there. The journey was over. My only regret was that there was no sort of climax to the story. I knew I would share the events of FBLA Nationals and once I found out we didn’t make it to the performance round of the competition I realized that the story would just kind of end. That’s why Hollywood screenwriters should organize conventions: so there’s a nice structure and big climax at the end and everyone has a story to tell. Oh well, maybe next year.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned from FBLA over the years it’s that I don’t have any interest in business. I appreciate businesses for providing me with cuisine and entertainment, but it’s just not for me. And if there’s one thing I learned from the FBLA National Convention it’s that if those kids truly are the future business leaders of America, I advise that you never invest anything into any sort of company. Because it will be run straight into the ground.