“And now we will hear from our class president, Alex Stephenson.” As the high school principal, Mr. Hamilton introduced Alex, the audience offered enthusiastic applause.
Alex was confused why people continued to think of him as a local celebrity. He hadn’t done anything special. What they all thought was a near-death experience hadn’t felt like death at all; more like a peaceful reminder to treasure life and take a stand against the negative pressures of the world.
He still felt guilty for having gotten into the car accident in the first place. If he hadn’t been drinking, he could have driven his friends home. Heck, none of them should have been drinking. Everyone at that party had been underage. They were all at fault.
How had society allowed such behavior? Where were the adults? Adults. What did that word even mean? He was eighteen now. Graduating high school. Did that mean he was an adult?
He was old enough to join the military and stand on the front lines in defense of his country, if he weren’t confined to a wheelchair. He was old enough to buy cigarettes if he was stupid enough.
So why wasn’t he old enough to drink? A lesson from anatomy and physiology class back in early high school rushed into his mind. Something about how the human brain wasn’t finished growing until the age of twenty-four or something like that, and that it was pretty much never safe to drink alcohol. He glanced over at his science teacher and smiled.
As he negotiated the uneven stage in the confines of his wheelchair, Alex wished there was some way to change the culture and ensure this never happened to anyone else.
Determined to give his commencement speech standing at the podium rather than having someone bring a microphone to sit in front of him, Alex locked the wheels of his wheelchair and struggled to stand up. He had already warned the administrators and teachers on the stage that he would be fine standing for the short speech and not to try to help him. This was humiliating enough as it was; he didn’t need anyone fussing over him.
After a few seconds of struggling to get out of his chair, Alex took a few deep breaths and forced his heart to stop racing. He wasn’t sure if he was sweating from nervousness or from the exertion.
Alex took a moment to look around at his friends and family. His mom and dad sat with Prince Marcos and his wife, Hazel. All of Gus’s older brothers were there of course and Aaron gave him a thumbs up.
Next to the sons of Marcos sat Alex’s physical therapist, Malik and his wife, Kelly. They were there to watch their daughter, Ellen, graduate. But Alex also knew Malik was here to support him.
Before starting his speech, Alex held eye contact with his best friend and fellow graduate, Augustus Sayid. They’d been through a lot together, not just in the past six months since the accident, but throughout their lives. They’d been best friends since before they were born and had a bond that exceeded most normal relationships. They were brothers. And it was to Gus who Alex started his commencement speech.
“I’m honored to be standing with you.” Alex finally broke eye contact when he chuckled and coughed lightly. “Heck, I’m honored to be standing at all. Or alive for that matter.”
He was completely off-script at this point and couldn’t even remember in which pocket he’d tucked his notes. Alex had a captive audience chuckling along with him.
“In case there are any of you in the auditorium who haven’t heard the story, I’ll tell you why I’m lucky to be alive.” He cleared his throat and gathered courage. “I was in a really bad car accident that wrapped a beautiful Audi RS 5 around a telephone pole and left me in a coma for three days.”
Alex knew most people in the audience were aware he was glossing over the incident, but he didn’t want to drag anything through mud. He wanted to focus on the positive. To focus on the miracle. Or did he? He pulled back from the microphone and looked down at the podium.
What did he really want to tell them about his experience? He’d already shared everything with Ellen as she wrote the book that would soon be published. In this tiny speech would he be able to give proper reverence to what he’d witnessed? He lifted his eyes and met Gus’s gaze again. His best friend seemed to nod imperceptibly.
“While I was lying in that hospital bed, I knew who was holding my hand.” Alex was almost certain a tear fell from Gus’s eye, but he didn’t wipe his cheek. “I saw and heard things that I shouldn’t have been able to see and hear if I’d had no brain waves. People can say I had a near-death experience if that’s what they want to call it, but I was just as awake as I am right now. It would take me a very long speech to share with you all that I saw and heard so I’ll let you read about it when the book comes out next month.”
Alex chuckled along with the rest of the audience and drew courage to get through these next few minutes. He couldn’t believe he was about to do this but knew it needed to be done. There were things that needed to be said. He took a deep breath and blew it out slowly.
“Graduation is a time to celebrate crossing a threshold into adulthood. But some celebrations turn into parties. And some parties include alcohol. And sometimes alcohol gets into the hands of teenagers. And sometimes teenagers climb into vehicles such as the beautiful black Audi that was supposed to take me home that night.”
He paused again forcing himself to stay composed. He straightened to his full height and lifted his chin.
“I will never drink alcohol again, and I will spend the rest of my time on earth standing up to bring awareness to the dangers of teenage drinking. I want to encourage my fellow graduates to do the same. I’m pretty sure every one of you has legs on which to stand. Hopefully legs that work better than mine. If not, I can recommend a great physical therapist.”
Alex glanced over at Malik and they smirked at one another. He heard sniffing from the audience and some people were dabbing at their eyes. He forced away a similar emotional reaction and instead chose to be strong and issue a powerful challenge.
“I choose to stay sober tonight when I celebrate my graduation. Who will stand with me?”
Alex said the words with such power and authority he wasn’t sure the people in the audience realized this was the conclusion of his speech. As he took a half step back from the podium he wondered if anyone would react.
Finally, Gus stood and called out, “I’ll stand with you Alex. I promise to stay sober tonight and every night for the rest of my life.”
“Your Highness, you of all people had better stay sober with me,” Alex said with a chuckle. Gus nodded and Alex knew for certain the tears he’d suspected were indeed running down Gus’s face.
“I’ll stand sober with you too, Alex,” Logan called out, rising from his chair in the front row among the other top ten students.
“Thank you, my friend,” Alex said.
“I’ll stand sober with you, Alex.” Ellen added her sweet, little voice and Alex winked at her.
“That’s good, babe, cause you’re my date tonight,” Alex stage-whispered into the mic and Ellen blushed.
“I’ll stand sober with you too, Alex,” Zach added his powerful assertion.
“Thanks, man.” Alex smiled down at the kid who had been an enemy a few short months prior.
“I’ll stand sober with you, Alex,” Phoebe called out.
The first non-graduate to stand and call out was Aaron, quickly followed by Owen and Hayden, his brothers. Suddenly people all throughout the stadium were rising to their feet and calling out, “I’ll stand sober with you, Alex.”
Even the teachers and administrators were standing. From what Alex could see, everyone in the auditorium was standing and Alex’s knees went weak.
Alex collapsed into his wheelchair and sobbed unabashedly into his hands, thanking God for giving him the strength and courage to do what he’d just done.
Strong arms gathered him close and Alex recognized the embrace of his best friend, Gus. How he’d gotten to the stage so quickly was a testament to their bond. Gus probably had left his row of seats as soon as he saw Alex wavering.
“I’ve gotcha, man,” Gus whispered, and clasped his hand with a firm grip. “I’m right here. Holding your hand.”
“I knew it was you holding my hand the whole time, Gus,” Alex managed to choke out through his sobs. “Thanks for standing with me.”
“Forever,” Gus said, patting him on the back as Alex continued crying for several moments. “Now whatdaya say we get some diplomas and take those cute girls out to dinner or something?”
“Sounds like a great plan,” Alex said with a smile through his tears. “As long as you’re not driving.”
“Not for four-and-a-half more years of probation, man.” Gus stood from where he crouched beside Alex’s wheelchair and grabbed the handles. “Besides, we wouldn’t want to put our limo drivers out of their jobs.”
As Gus pushed him forward along the uneven stage, Alex clasped hands or gave high fives or hugs to each of his teachers and administrators. The audience didn’t need to stand for an ovation to his speech because they were already on their feet, but he relished their cheers and applause.
Alex received his diploma that evening with gratitude that he’d been sent back here to earth to continue this work. He vowed to spend the remainder of his life in the service of inspiring anyone who would listen.