A critical barber teacher, a loving mother, a dedicated mentor, and plain hard work led Sethea to winning first place in the state barber competition of 1979.

It-Paid-Off-1They called third place, then second, and, finally, first. The room was dead silent. I repeated the name to myself and then stood up.

“Oh my gosh, guys, that’s me!” I exclaimed.

They had pronounced my name so poorly that I didn’t recognize it at first, but it was true: I won first place in the state of Illinois for the men’s freestyle barber competition.

I was a senior in high school and working toward getting my barber’s license. We had a program that let us split our days between regular classes and trade school, so I attended high school in the morning and barber college at the University of Barber Styling in Aurora, Illinois, in the afternoon. 

Due to my struggle with dyslexia, I had dealt with the challenges of being separated into special education and being made fun of by my peers. I’d been told I was stupid, and I was often ashamed of dyslexia. But I never gave up, and the criticisms pushed me to work that much harder.

They Believed in Me

One benefit of having eight older siblings was that I was very comfortable talking with people who were older than me. I think it allowed me to relate to adults differently than other students, and I became friends with many of my teachers. I spent a significant amount of time with them, whether it was to ask questions or just talk about life. To this day, a lot of them are still great friends.

One of those dear friends is Verlin Cox, my high school art teacher, who became one of the biggest influences in my life. Her daughters grew up considering me a big sister. I went to their weddings, and I’m godmother to one of Verlin’s granddaughters, Renee. Verlin tutored me through barber college and helped me study for my licensing test. She would draw pictures and come up with all kinds of creative ways to help me remember things.My mother had encouraged me to enter the state barber competition, but I didn’t want to, and, besides, I didn’t have the money. But Mom insisted and even offered to pay for it, so I gave it a shot.

I competed in the Men’s Freestyle Competition. We had to give a haircut while judges watched and critiqued. Then we had to blow dry the hair, and the judges were meticulous about making sure it was perfectly smooth on all sides.

No one from my school had won first in the state before. When they announced my name, my barber teacher, who always, always found mistakes with my haircuts, actually started crying.

“I knew you could do it. I just knew you could do it,” he said.

I was perplexed. “You never once told me that I could do it!” I said.

“If I would have told you, you would have given up,” he explained. “But because I always found a mistake, you always tried harder. It paid off.”

The trophy was beautiful, and I absolutely couldn’t wait to show my mom. One of my brothers was having a party that day, and my family was gathered at his house. When I got there, I hid the trophy behind my back, underneath my sweater.

“How’d you do?” Mom asked.

“I took first place just for you!” I said.

We both started crying, and she said, “Honey, I knew you had it in you. I just knew you had it in you!”

It was a moment I’ll never forget. So many people had believed in me, and I had a trophy to prove it.