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Mr. Gray and Ms. Tidwell: The Making of a Scholar

Before he founded Scholly and appeared on Shark Tank, Christopher Gray earned $1.3 million in scholarship money with a little help from a friend. Here is the real story.

Chris Gray Tidwell

February 20, 2015

by Joseph Master

There was a moment, back in 2010, when an 18-year-old Christopher Gray truly became the “Million Dollar Scholar.” Until now, that story has not been told.

The name “Million Dollar Scholar” is a convenient headline that was bestowed on Gray by the local press and re-used by the likes of USA Today, Fox News and The Philadelphia Inquirer after he won $1.3 million in scholarship money. Yet, as monikers go, it misses the mark. The moment, like the man, was not so much about money as it was about heart.

And Christopher Gray has heart in spades.

The salient moment occurred in Gray’s hometown of Birmingham, Alabama, in his high school auditorium — a space not unlike the thousands of halls across the country where high school students congregate — during a scholarship assembly for graduating seniors.

As each name was called and each scholarship announced, one young man stood tall (despite his short stature) and clapped for every recipient — no matter the name, no matter the amount. Ten dollars? One hundred dollars? A thousand? He clapped. And in this moment, his clapping began a ripple effect. The entire senior class stood and applauded each scholarship with the same contagious enthusiasm in a show of unity that touched the administrators and teachers who were scattered throughout the auditorium.

The young man who started the cascade of claps was Christopher Gray. Though his own scholarships amounted to more than the rest of his class combined, and he was undoubtedly the star of the show, he was profoundly aware of how priceless each grant could be for his peers. He understood, perhaps more than most, how much it took to fund a college education. And he knew that for many, it couldn’t be done alone. Some people needed help. He sure did.

Read our full, exclusive interview with Scholly founder Christopher Gray, a LeBow College of Business and Close School of Entrepreneurship student majoring in entrepreneurship.

Chris Gray Shark Tank

Also present in the room that day was Tara Tidwell, Gray’s AP Literature teacher — a woman whose help and hope and faith and support continue to touch Gray to this day. He still affectionately calls her Ms. Tidwell and sees her as much more than a teacher. She is a friend, a confidante and a kindred spirit. Tidwell, who still talks to Gray regularly, sees in Gray the same young man, full of confidence and desire. But most importantly, full of heart.

“I knew then, in that moment, that he recognized the importance,” Tidwell says. “He understood that it was precious for all of those people. It was such a powerful moment for me. I was so very proud that he recognized and would do that for others. And he’s still doing it, just like he did it then.”

Tara Tidwell first met Christopher Gray in the fledgling days of his freshman year, when he sought her out after catching wind that she had helped a graduating senior win an impressive amount of scholarships.

He found her in a hallway and proclaimed: “I want you to help me do that!”

Four years later, she did.

Tidwell remembers the moment fondly: “For me, he was this audacious underclassman who made this very abrupt announcement. He presented himself, told me who he was, declared it, and went away. And I thought, ‘Well, that’s fascinating.’”

As a senior, while taking Tidwell’s AP Literature class, Gray worked with her before and after school — and at lunch — to apply for every scholarship he could, regardless of the amount. For each one, Gray wrote an essay and Tidwell picked it apart, pushing him to continually revise his work and to find his voice. The process took months, during which Gray worked a part-time job to supplement his family’s income after his mother lost her job. All the while, Gray was serving as president of the UAB Entrepreneurship Program, the Untouchable Nation, and the Peer Helper’s Club. He also logged more than 500 hours of community service by graduation, never allowing his own toil to keep him from helping others.

He didn’t even own a home computer. Tidwell, who was aware of Gray’s difficult financial situation, saw the process not as a fiduciary endeavor, but a journey of personal growth.

“I wanted him to think for himself,” says Tidwell. “So I would question everything he wrote. We did that in class as well. I’d constantly remind him that nothing is divorced from the human experience. It’s all connected. He started seeking out the connectivity in everything around him, and once he realized that it was there, what he learned in his academics would connect to his life pursuits, to his family … it was like a door opened. And once that door opened, no one was ever going to be able to shut it again.”

While taking Tidwell’s class, Gray was exposed to literature that helped to open that door. He identified with the dichotomy of flawed human nature and resurrection in Voltaire’s "Candide;" the representation of light as knowledge and the almost impossible fighting of the tide in Mary Shelly’s "Frankenstein." There was also Milton’s "Paradise Lost" and Wilde’s "The Picture of Dorian Gray" — narratives that held a mirror to society and exposed the beauty in despair and the redemption in weakness.

Chris Gray

“My impact on him was about expanding his worldview,” Tidwell remembers. “He’d been used to not having finances. Not being able to buy clothes. Peer pressure. I like to think that I helped show him that by being an intellectual, he could have a mental escape. That he could turn the detriments of his background into the things that make him the person we know now. He has always wanted to bring people towards some kind of light, towards some sort of knowledge,” Tidwell says. “I am so incredibly proud of him. His work ethic is almost endless.”

With the founding and stunning success of Scholly, Gray continues to share the light of knowledge with others — to stand up and applaud as he helps students from across the nation find the means they need to attend college.

All the while, Tidwell continues to applaud her friend, understanding that while she was an early guide, her young counterpart has now become a steward for others, continuing the same chain of appreciation he started on the day he became “The Million Dollar Scholar.”

But to Tidwell, a woman who thoroughly believes that a full belly can be of little worth when the mind is starved, her pivotal memory of Gray is not of his coronation on scholarship day, but of another moment of adornment.

The moment occurred during Gray’s sophomore year in Ramsay High School’s choir room, when she noticed a rather small young man wearing an oversized suit — perhaps the first suit he’d ever worn. In this moment, Tidwell helped the choir director show Gray how to cut the strings on the vents and in the pockets. They straightened his tie. 

Tidwell still tears up speaking about it.

“My first memory of him wasn’t so much of this very audacious young man, but more of this young man who the choir director told me was a caring human being who really wants to help others. I was very struck by the fact that he wanted to look dapper. But I had a feeling that his life circumstances were such that he couldn’t have a suit that really fit him,” she says.

“So it’s always an irony to me now that in adulthood, he’s a sharp dresser. Always put together. But I remember this young man who we showed how to wear his suit.”