He shouldn’t be nervous. He’d already given this speech once before. But that was to people he knew and who cared about him.
His fellow graduates had known most of his story. For this speech, Alex had to start from scratch. He gave himself a silent pep talk. I need to be vulnerable enough to allow people to see the boy I was before I was the man I am now.
Without preamble or introduction, Alex spoke confidently into the microphone. “When people ask me if I met God when I had my near-death experience I choke on my reply. In order to answer that question, I have to back up a few years.”
For effect, he backed his wheelchair away from the circle at center court. The bleachers on one entire side of the gymnasium were packed with high school students. The gym floor had been kept empty so Alex could wheel back and forth if he wanted to interact with the students. His lapel microphone was wireless, so he was only limited by his own nerves. He was determined to keep those at bay.
His speech was scheduled for Friday afternoon the second week into the new school year at a town just far enough away that most people had probably never heard of him. That was deliberate. This would work best if the kids had no idea what was coming.
They were all dressed in blue and gold, cheerleaders in uniform, football players wearing their jerseys, ready for that evening’s home game. Not exactly the typical pep rally.
“You see, if there was a God, he sure wasn’t going to talk to a kid like me.” That got their attention. He may look sweet and innocent now, but they needed to know the reason for his change, and how drastic it had been. “I wasn’t living the kind of life that God would approve of. I was living the kind of life that my friends thought was cool. I was living the kind of life that got me any girl I wanted. I was living the kind of life that allowed me to have the most expensive everything. I was living the kind of life that got me alcohol and drugs and more girls and more girls and more girls.”
A chuckle went through the crowd and one guy whistled.
“I wasn’t planning to die that day.” That shut them up. “I had too much to do. I needed to win the competition with my friends. We were competing to see how many girls we could sleep with that weekend. I lost the bet. Because I was in a coma for three days.”
No one laughed or whistled at that statement.
“Coincidently, none of my friends won the bet either because they were all in the emergency room.” Alex held up a set of car keys and shook them gently to let them jingle. “Gus won the competition for who got to drive home that night. His beautiful Audi RS-5 nearly dislodged that telephone pole right off the side of the road. I know because I was standing right there watching the paramedics pull my body from the wreckage.”
The gymnasium full of high school kids was nearly silent. If they thought today’s assembly was going to be just another pep talk from a motivational speaker, they were mistaken.
“All five of us wound up in the hospital that night, but I was the only one who died,” Alex continued. “But the thing is, I didn’t die. They just thought I had died. I was wide awake, and I was in the most peaceful place I had ever known.”
Alex had to stop and catch his breath, because this was where his story shifted.
“People like to call this a near-death experience. I called the place paradise because that’s how it felt. I was in paradise. Except, it wasn’t all peace and clouds and singing angels.” His voice grew dark again. “There was also a complete recollection of everything in my life that had led up to that moment. Everything.”
Alex glanced at his legs and flicked a piece of link from his slacks. He cleared his throat and gathered his courage.
“I’m glad I didn’t meet God. Because I wouldn’t want to look him in the eye and know that the reason I was there was because I was plastered drunk and got into a car accident. I also wouldn’t want to look him in the eye knowing he’d witnessed everything I’d ever done prior to that night. Everything I’d ever done behind the stadium after the football games. Everything I’d ever done in the backseat of that Audi, you know, before it was a mangled hunk of metal wrapped around a telephone pole.”
This conversation made the kids in the gymnasium squirm. When Ellen had told Alex that the girls in their school were playing the same game as the guys, she wasn’t kidding. This school was no different than the one he’d attended one year ago. These kids were the same as any other kids. He needed to return to the topic of the car accident.
“There was a lot of alcohol at the party that night. But there was a lot of alcohol at every party that I went to. None of us should have been drinking. None of us should have climbed into that car. None of us should have taken those keys.” Alex held up the set of keys again. “When I returned to my body and woke up from my coma, I told my best friend Gus startling details about the accident. Details I should not have known if I’d been in a coma. I was awake that was for sure. I was standing right there. I saw my best friend bleeding. I saw his brother puking because he had drank too much alcohol. Then I saw their oldest brother crying like a baby while leaning over my body trying to get me to respond.
“Later I saw my mom crying while standing near my bed. She was devastated because she thought I was no longer alive, and she couldn’t bring me back. And then I saw my dad crying. If you ever wanna see the most horrifying thing in the world, watch your mom or your dad cry, and realize that the reason they’re crying is because you’re dead. And the reason you’re dead is because you got in a car accident, and the reason you got in a car accident was because you were plastered drunk.”
Alex had to slow down and catch his breath.
“Now take yourself back to the beginning of that party and ask yourself if, knowing all of that, you would still take that first drink of alcohol,” Alex said. “Because after you take the first drink, the second drink doesn’t sound that bad. You don’t remember the third and by the fourth you’re making out with that cute girl who’s been giving you the eye and you decide to sneak off together somewhere.
“But by the fifth or sixth beer you’re looking for a place to throw up, and then the next morning you don’t remember anything because you have a pounding headache and you can’t find your car, and you’re missing your favorite jeans, and you don’t even remember taking them off, and you can’t remember that girl’s name and when someone tells you that you were in rare form last night, all you can think is, I don’t even remember last night.”
Alex’s voice softened for a moment.
“And then you have the chance to stand in God’s presence and know that you did all those things. And you wait for him to tell you how evil you are and how sinful you are. But instead, all you feel from God is forgiveness and love. But all you can feel in your own heart is guilt and dread and wondering how you’re going to face an eternity of feeling guilty.
“And then someone tells you that you have to go home, except you are standing in the most peaceful, wonderful paradise and you don’t want to go back to where you know that you’re going to wake up with a headache and a stomachache and you’re going to puke some more, and you’ve lost respect from everybody that you’ve ever known.”
Alex snickered for the next part.
“And that girl who you were making out with, she thinks you’re the worst person in the world because you took advantage of her when she was drunk. Then maybe a few months later you find out that you’re going to be a dad because you were stupid enough to go after that girl when you were both drunk.”
Alex held up his hand as if volunteering.
“How many of you are ready to become a parent? Raise your hand. I’m not ready to become a dad yet. If I ever have the opportunity to be a dad, I’m sure I’ll love being a dad. But not when I’m eighteen or seventeen or sixteen years old.”
There was a lot of sniffling throughout the gym, but Alex had one more bomb to drop on them. One that had been staring at them the whole time he was giving his talk.
“After standing in the presence of God, I came back to earth and learned that my spine was broken, and I had very little feeling from the waist down.” Alex glanced at his numb legs then lifted his chin and met the gazes of several boys in the front couple of rows. “Think about that for a minute guys. I have no feeling from the waist down.”
He let that sink in then he continued.
“Now, once again, take yourself back to the beginning of that party and ask yourself if you would still take that first drink of alcohol,” Alex said. “Because I sure wouldn’t.”
For the last part of his speech, Alex needed some volunteers. He asked two football players in the front row to come help him. He locked the wheels in place and instructed the two guys to help him up from his chair. He knew that he’d be able to stand for just a minute or two, and that this part of his speech would be more effective with him on his feet.
“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 all of you 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. I choose to stay sober tonight and every night for the rest of my life. Who will stand with me?”
The kids probably didn’t realize that he was done with his speech because no one really moved. Until one of the football players standing next to him chuckled and said, “I’ll stand with you.”
“That’s a good thing,” Alex said. “Because you’re the one holding me up.”
“I’ll stand with you too man,” the other kid said.
“Thanks man, I appreciate that.”
“I’ll stand with you too,” a guy in the front row said, pushing himself off the bleachers.
Suddenly lots of kids throughout the gymnasium stood and called out, “I’ll stand with you.”
Within minutes everyone in the gymnasium was on their feet calling out the words that Alex really wanted to hear. “I’ll stand with you. I’ll stand with you. I’ll stand with you.”
Book Club Discussion Questions: How much trouble do you think Alex is going to get into for this speech?