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Fiction, Short Fiction
by: John Sheirer
Have you ever sat on stage in front of hundreds of people convinced that you were about to make a complete fool of yourself? I did.
It all started in the spring of my junior year of high school when I was selected for membership in the National Honor Society. This was our school's greatest academic honor--actually our only academic honor that I can remember. The main perk of selection was that members got to read witty aphorisms picked out by the principal and give morning announcements over the public address system before classes started, which was wonderful not so much for the prestige it carried but because it got you out of the boring half hour of home-room before the day's education actually kicked off.
The basic requirements for membership included a certain minimum grade average, a majority vote of current members, and the approval of the faculty advisor. My only worry was the faculty approval because some of the teachers thought I was falling short of my potential (a comment that always drove me nuts when teachers included it on my report card). But Mrs. Andrews, our nice English teacher (Mrs. Mortenson was considered the mean English teacher) was the honor society's faculty advisor, and she had once told me that she valued my potential rather than seeing it as a burden that I had to live up to. She also told me that I was a good writer, focusing on the content of what I wrote rather than my often-poor spelling as Mrs. Mortenson did.
So I got in. At an assembly on a Friday afternoon, my name was called along with four of my other classmates. (Considering our class had only fifty students, I guess that put us in the top ten percent.) I got to walk up on stage and light a candle held by Janet Reynolds, the senior president of the society (also the daughter of the basketball coach and a cheerleader who I sat with a few times on the basketball bus coming home from away games). Janet put a ribbon holding the wooden honor society key around my neck and actually kissed me on the cheek in front of the whole school as she did so. That was more intimacy than we had ever shared on the dark basketball bus.
Election to the society was supposed to be kept secret from the new members, but word had a way of leaking out. The faculty advisor contacted the parents of each new member a few weeks before the assembly so they could attend and surprise their child. I was pretty sure I would get in when my mother asked me that morning, "Is that what you're wearing today?" I smiled because I had worn my worst flannel shirt that morning on purpose to gauge her response.
"This?" I replied. "I just put this old thing on to feed the chickens." Before catching the bus, I went back up to my room and put on the nice sweater Mom had gotten me for Christmas. She was very pleased with the selection. After school, Mom and Dad took me out to an early dinner at a steak house to celebrate. Mom made me wear the wooden key around my neck, so I drew a few funny looks from the retirees having their dinner at four in the afternoon.
During the last week of school that year, we five new honor society members met to elect officers for the coming year. I was very surprised when I was elected president by decree before any other officers were even nominated. I had no idea that they considered me a leader, and I was touched by their confidence. Besides running our meetings (with loads of necessary help from Mrs. Andrews), the president's main duties were emceeing the new-member induction assembly and giving a speech at graduation.
In retrospect, I realize that I was probably elected president mostly because I didn't mind giving the graduation speech--which actually went pretty well that year. Although the speech itself is something of a blank to me, I do remember that no one tossed rotten eggs at me, and I didn't throw up or accidentally say any swear words through the entire speech. The assembly for inducting new members, however, was something different entirely.
I had a great time planning the assembly, and the other members loved my ideas. Because the "four pillars" of the society were character, scholarship, leadership, and service, I suggested each of the other senior members give a speech about the pillar of their choice. To my surprise, they agreed--as long as the speeches were less than three minutes. I also suggested that the ninth-grade chorus sing during the assembly, and that we all wear graduation gowns to give the event a formal atmosphere.
Everything went well as the assembly began. I had changed into dress pants and nice shoes to wear under my robe rather than the jeans and sneakers I had worn to school that day. When I walked in, leading the formal procession toward the stage, a few of my basketball teammates snickered, but I didn't crack a smile. I spoke with confidence, welcoming everyone and leading our recital of the Pledge of Allegiance, then introduced the afternoon's proceedings.
My fellow members' speeches were going very well, and Mrs. Andrews was beaming at us from the back of the auditorium, proud of our maturity and preparation. My buddy Chris spoke about character, and my long-time unrequited love interest Glenda talked about scholarship. As my childhood friend and neighbor Marlene was finishing her speech on leadership, I was running the rest of the program through my head to make sure the event continued smoothly.
"Let's see," I thought to myself. "Leslie has her service speech next. Then the ninth-grade chorus sings a couple of songs. Then I'll read the list of names for provisional tenth-grade members who will stand and be recognized. Then we'll induct the eleventh-grade members, the principal will say a few words, and I'll finish everything up by inviting new members and their parents to the library for refreshments."
I tapped my right front pants pocket to make sure I had the list of provisional tenth-grade members that I would be reading. But the pocket was empty. I checked the left pocket, but that one was empty too. I sat stock-still and took a deep breath. Where was the list? "Don't panic," I told myself. "Re-trace your steps," I thought. "I got the list from Mrs. Andrews earlier in the day, folded it up, and put it in my pants pocket ... my jeans pocket ... the jeans I changed out of when I put on my dress pants ... the jeans that are at this moment locked up in my gym locker ..."
Now I was ready to panic. I had no idea what to do. I stared yearningly at Mrs. Andrews's proud, happy face. I never realized before how beautiful she was until that moment--the moment when my poor planning would completely disappoint her. I sent out the strongest telepathic message I could to her: "I don't have the list ... I don't have the list," but she just kept on smiling that proud smile. Anyway, she didn't know my locker number or combination. Even if I could send the complicated string of numbers to her telepathically, she couldn't very well go into the boy's locker room.
What could I do? Telepathy wasn't going to work. And I wasn't about to stand at the podium and say, "Umm ... this is the part of the program when I was ... umm ... going to read the list of provisional ... umm ... members, and stuff. But ... ahh ... what happened was ... ahh ... the list is ... you know ... in my ... ahh ... gym locker. You know ... in, like, the ... umm ... locker room." I would have sounded like a six-year-old.
Then I remembered one of the aphorisms I had said a few weeks ago during morning announcements: "If you won't do something, don't expect anyone else to do it for you." This was my problem, and I had to solve it.
I turned to Leslie as Marlene finished her speech and whispered, "Don't panic. I'll introduce you, and then I have to go and get the list of provisional members. If I'm not back by the time you finish, introduce the chorus for me."
She whispered back, "Where are you going?"
"The list is in my locker. I'll be back. Don't panic." Then I smiled and put my hand on her arm, the most physical contact I had with a girl since Janet kissed my cheek the year before. "Your speech will be great."
After I introduced Leslie, I walked right by my chair and headed out the back of the stage and through a side door into the hallway. My last glimpse of the audience was Mrs. Andrews's face as her smile melted away and her eyes widened at my apparent desertion.
Once I was in the hallway, I was faced with a major problem. There was some minor construction that blocked the doorway leading directly to the locker room. My options were either cutting through the back of the auditorium to another hallway or going through a nearby exit, around the outside of the building, back inside through the front doors, then to the locker room and back around the outside. I didn't want to go through the auditorium because that would make everyone turn and stare at me during Leslie's speech. Besides, Mrs. Andrews was back there, and I didn't have the time to stop and explain things to her--or the guts to just walk by her.
So I headed outside. I made quite a strange sight sprinting around the school in my gown and dress shoes. I smiled and waved to an elderly couple out for a stroll near the school and ran on by as they stared at me. To my relief, no one was in the hallway or the locker room. After one false try when I couldn't remember the combination I had memorized three years earlier, I got my locker opened, grabbed the list from my pocket (thank god it was there!), and re-traced my route around the building, passing the couple from behind and scaring them as I murmured my excuse me's.
After a brief moment of panic when I thought the outside door was locked-- it was only jammed--I made it back into the hallway, took a deep breath, checked to see that my gown was still on straight, smoothed my unruly hair, and walked through the back of the stage and took my seat. I made the entire trip to my locker and back in about two and a half minutes. Even from up on stage, I could see Mrs. Andrews's shoulders relaxing with a sigh of relief when she saw me return.
Just as I sat down, Leslie finished her speech, so I bounced up again and strode calmly to the podium to introduce the ninth-grade chorus. As I turned from the podium, I saw that my fellow members were staring at me with concern, so I smiled reassuringly at them. When I returned to my seat, however, I realized that my heart was hammering inside my chest as sweat was starting to form on my forehead. Luckily, I had all of the chorus's performance of "We've Only Just Begun" to catch my breath before going back up to the podium to read the treasured list of provisional members that I clutched in my hand. The entire school wrestling team couldn't have extracted that list from my hand at that moment.
We finished the assembly without further incident. I got to light the new members candles and put keys around their necks, but I didn't risk kissing anyone on the cheek. I'd had enough excitement for one assembly. Besides, I didn't want to invite a slap on the face in front of the whole school.
When we arrived at the library for refreshments, Mrs. Andrews ran to me and asked, "What happened? Did you get sick? I was so worried." She and the other members listened as I told them my tale of running around the school to get the list. Then we all collapsed on the chairs with laughter and relief.
The new members and their parents were on their way, so we all got up and met them at the door, shaking their hands and offering our congratulations at their achievement. As the last parent filed in, she shook my hand and thanked me.
"For what?" I asked.
"I'm just so glad you got up in the middle of the ceremony to open those windows behind the stage," she said. "It was getting so hot in that auditorium until you did that. You cooled the place right down."