— Braeden Kershner likes to conduct music with his eyes closed; he can see his dream better that way.
He wanted to join John Williams, Arthur Fiedler and Keith Lockhart, the select few who have conducted the Boston Pops. What do Braeden and Keith Lockhart have in common?
"We're both young and handsome!" Braeden shot back.
Lockhart laughed, "He's more confident than I am."
Never mind that Braeden was just 18. To prepare for a career in conducting, he learned to play every instrument in the orchestra. "If I gave you orders and I hadn't played that instrument, you wouldn't take that order seriously," he said simply.
The friends Braeden tutored in Goose Creek, S.C., knew he was serious. While they hung out, doing what teenagers do, he worked 11 jobs.
He told his mom, Diane, he needed $10,000. Fast. "It was a little shock to me," Diane said, "because, at that time, I had just lost my job."
The boy with a dream had seen an ad on the Internet, saying fans could conduct the Boston Pops if they donated big bucks to the orchestra. "It's just money!" Braeden insisted to his mom. "If that can buy you the thing you wanted all your life, then it's worth it to me."
He could have had a fundraiser to get the cash. He did not. Braeden mowed nearly all the yards in the neighborhood. Worked the overnight shift at the Waffle House. Delivered pizzas and newspapers.
Six months later, he had $5,000 — half the money he needed.
There were a lot of people pulling for him behind the scenes; when the time came, they would make sure he got his chance to conduct. But that $5,000 was enough. One day, the Pops performed in South Carolina, just down the road from Goose Creek, with a new guest conductor.
Standing on that stage, Braeden tallied up what his dream had cost. "All the hundreds of yards I mowed, the hundreds of cars I washed, all the late-night jobs."
Was it a bargain?
"I could have bought a new car. It would rust and break down in 20 years. This is something I always will have with me."
Oh, he got more than a memory. The Pops returned Braeden's money to help him pay for college.
In and out of the spotlight
That night could have made Braeden Kershner a star. Instead, he joined the Marines, just before 9-11. Came home to become a band director, teaching kids just down the road from his boyhood school in Goose Creek, a constant reminder to kids that some things aren't bought: They're earned.
Why would someone who has had a flash of fame step out of the spotlight?
"The idea was never to be famous," Braeden insisted. "It was just to accomplish a dream."
And then guide others to theirs.
Braeden took a job teaching band at Stall High School in North Charleston, South Carolina. Spent five weeks that first summer getting a commercial driver's license so he could bring players to practice. "The kids didn't know this, but it was never about the music. It was about keeping them involved in something positive."
Some of the kids in the band were on the verge of dropping out of school before Braeden showed how playing music could make them ... cool. The Marine sergeant turned their band practice into a happy boot camp. They learned teamwork, carrying his couch above their heads. And on rainy days ... they put down their instruments and marched in the mud.
Drummer Antone Rose now believes anything can be accomplished with practice.
"He took the word 'Can't' outta our vocabulary."
Here, failure is forgiven; giving up is not. Braeden Kershner taught them how to craft a note, and then their lives.
"What's the secret of making big dreams come true?" I asked him.
"Persistence. The world is full of a lot of talented people. But the ones that seem to be the most successful try after they fail."
They are also the ones who do the unexpected. The man from Goose Creek is about to become a father, but has another dream to finish first. He went on a diet of oranges and popcorn for three weeks preparing for a shot at the Guinness Book of World Records: Putting his body through an ordinary tennis racket 22 times in one minute.
We laugh. He won. Big ideas often begin in small places.