Steven was serving the second day of his suspension for punching Kyle in the face to teach him a lesson about 'no means no'. The day before he'd managed to calm down the students who were boycotting classes at his High School in protest over Steven's suspension and the need to punish people who made unwanted sexual advances. He was perfectly happy to serve his suspension because he'd broken school rules, and also he needed the time to catch up on missed homework and prepare for his exams the following week. Then it was Christmas break, and he was looking forward to spending more time with his new boyfriend Landon.
He was sitting at the dining room table under the loose supervision of his mother who was busy in the kitchen when he heard the house phone ring. A couple of minutes later his mother came in and said that the mayor wanted to speak to him, so he put aside his books and went into the kitchen. His mother held out the phone to him.
"This is Steven Roberts speaking."
"Good morning, Steven, this is Mayor Kowalski speaking. Have you got a few minutes to spare?"
"Yes, sir, I do. What's it about?"
"Well, I watched the tape of your speech yesterday at the High School and I spoke to Police Chief Connolly who was there, and also to the Principal, and what we'd like to do is to give you a certificate of Civic Recognition for your role in averting what might have been a really damaging incident. Your speech not only calmed everyone down, but it highlighted the need for greater culpability for people found guilty of unwanted sexual advances."
"Well, I'm not sure I'm really deserving of an award for that, sir, I just did what the Principal asked me to."
"Yes, you did, but you did it in a way that the students responded to. You speak their language and that means a great deal. If I'd made that speech I don't think people would have listened to me like they listened to you. We need more peer-to-peer conversations, and less adults telling kids what and what not to do."
"Yes, sir, I agree, kids listen better when it's one of their own speaking. But I still don't think I merit any recognition."
"I appreciate your modesty, Steven, but it's what we think is appropriate, so the Principal is willing to let us come and give you the certificate during the closing school assembly on Friday week. You'll be there, won't you?"
"Yes, I'll be there. Most everyone comes because it's the last thing before school lets out, and they give out prizes and stuff so kids like to come."
"OK, that's great. And we'll invite your parents as well."
"Excuse me for asking, sir, but would I be allowed to say a few words when you give me the certificate?"
"Absolutely, we'd welcome it."
"You see, sir, there's something on my mind that I'd like to share with the students and this would be a great time and place to do it."
"Can you tell me what it's about, Steven?"
And Steven did. And when he'd finished, the mayor said that if he could do that, and if he spoke as well as he had done yesterday, then he'd probably get another award. Steven laughed even though it wasn't really a laughing matter, thanked the mayor, and went back to his homework.
At dinner that evening he told his parents what had happened, and that they might be getting an invitation to the award presentation. And then he told them what he was planning to do. At first his parents were not particularly enthusiastic, but as they listened to Steven and the passion he showed in presenting his ideas, they came round to his point of view, and made a couple of additional suggestions that Steven thought were very useful.
So after a weekend where he spent a lot of time with Landon at Landon's house, but not as much as he wanted because he had to do extra revision for his exams, and four days of exams where he felt he'd done quite well, particularly after missing five weeks during his period of grieving for Nick, Steven was seated in the front row of the auditorium next to his parents for the final school assembly of the semester.
There were lots of awards and recognitions. Some were sporting, of course, because that's the easiest way to get student interest, some were for academic achievements, some for extracurricular activities such as music and drama, some honored students who had gained early acceptances from the colleges of their choice, and finally they got to Steven. The Principal addressed the audience.
"From time to time we recognize special contributions to the school from our students who have done something beyond the normal expectations of our community. Sometimes they're given for things internal to the school and its students, faculty and staff, and sometimes they're given for actions outside normal school life. Today we're pleased to recognize one of our students who not only helped defuse a difficult situation within the school but also raised awareness in the community at large about the need to crack down on sexual assault and ensure that people guilty of that are properly punished. So I'm honored to have Mayor Kowalski and Police Chief Connolly present a certificate of Civic Recognition to Steven Roberts."
The audience broke into applause and whistles and catcalls, and for the second time Steven head his name chanted by the students, together with cries of 'NO MEANS NO'! Steven stood up, climbed up the steps to the stage and accepted his certificate from the mayor and police chief. Then he turned to the audience and, just like last time, he raised his arms until there was enough quiet for him to be heard.
"First, thank you, Mayor Kowalski and Police Chief Connolly, for giving me this recognition. As I told you before, I'm not sure I'm deserving of the honor. I mean, do you normally give awards to kids who punch other kids in the face?" After the laughter died down, Steven continued. "And I said that I'd accept the award only on the condition that I dedicate it to all of the students who supported the "NO MEANS NO' cause. I didn't do much myself, it was your initiative to stage a protest."
The students hollered and cheered again. And again there were chants of 'Steven, Steven!' and 'NO MEANS NO!'. When these quietened down, Steven looked out at the audience.
"When I agreed to accept the award, I asked if I could speak on another topic that's close to my heart, and everyone agreed. So here goes.
"In a few minutes we'll all be out of here and have over two weeks off for Christmas and New Year. Like all of you I'm looking forward to this. It's a fun time!" and he signalled to the projection booth, and on the screen above the stage came a picture of Steven in front of a Christmas tree with a big grin on his face.
"Lots of loot! That was last Christmas. And I went to several parties and people had a good time. And at some of those parties some of us had things to drink that we're not supposed to. Now, I'm not going to tell you guys not to drink, that's a waste of time. Maybe the Principal and the mayor and the police will tell you that, but that's not my job. What I will say, though, is that when we drink alcohol we do need to follow a few simple rules. Here's why."
The photo of Steven expanded to show Nick next to him, also grinning and looking really happy.
"That's Nick. Lot's of you knew him. He was smart and funny and lots of other things I better not talk about here, and he was my boyfriend until last September when he was killed by some asshole of a drunk driver."
The next slide showed the Robert's car smashed up by the side of the road. There was a gasp from the audience.
"He and me and my Mom were in that car. Two of us escaped with bruises and some concussion, but Nick died, and for a long time I wished I'd died with him because life without him was unbearable. I'm getting over it, but it's been really hard.
"Now I'll tell you two other things. First, the TV and the papers got it all wrong when they said Nick was the victim of a drunk driver running a red light. Nick wasn't 'THE' victim, he was 'ONE OF SEVERAL VICTIMS'. People think the dead ones are the victims, but they're not really, it's the people left behind who are the real victims.
"Sitting in the front row here are Nick's mom and dad, who treated me like their second son and loved me just like they loved Nick. And then one day out of the blue, a cop comes to the door and tells them their son is dead. Bang, just like that! For fourteen years they had their only son with them, and suddenly he's gone forever. No warning. So they're victims just as much as Nick was.
"My mom can't drive at night. She's lost her nerve, even though she did nothing wrong when the accident happened. She had a nervous breakdown, went to her sister in Boston, and we didn't know if she'd ever come back. She and my dad loved Nick as if he was their son and my brother. My Dad had his own way to deal with grief, working up to eighteen hours a day because he couldn't stand being in our house. So both my parents were victims.
"And many of you knew how I reacted, smoking weed and getting plastered as often as I could, and effectively dropping out of school because I couldn't face life without Nick. So I was a victim.
"And lots of you here are victims because you knew Nick and liked him and went to classes with him and had lunch with him, and then he wasn't there any more. So you're victims.
"Yeah, we all see about drunk drivers and accidents and deaths on TV, but it doesn't really affect us because we're not involved. All of us here were involved. Nick was part of our school and our community and lots of you knew him and were friends with him. And anyone who kills someone because they were drunk affects lots of other people, and it lasts for the rest of their lives.
"And now, here's the second thing about Nick's death I want to tell you."
Steven paused, put his hand in his pocket, pulled out his wallet, looked inside, and pulled out a twenty dollar bill.
"All of what I've just said about Nick's death and the grief it caused his family and my family and you guys could have been avoided for the cost of twenty dollars. Because some total dickhead of a drunk driver didn't want to spend twenty fucking dollars, Nick could be here right now looking forward to another Christmas with me just like the one I showed you.
"How do I know it's twenty dollars? Because that's what it costs to take an Uber from the bar where the murderer got drunk to his house. Twenty goddamn dollars. And by saving that much money he's lost all his money in legal fees and fines and he's in jail for fifteen years. And I hope he hates every single day of it!
"So I'm not going to stand here and say 'don't drink' at the parties we're all going to. You won't listen to me if I say that. Any more than you'd listen if I told you not to have sex. Hey, we're all human. But I can tell you how to avoid all of the misery and disaster that happens when you drink and drive. And it's so simple, it's almost stupid. Here's how!"
"If you see someone who's been drinking, stop them from driving by grabbing their keys. Find someone who hasn't been drinking if there is someone who's sober, and get them to drive. If you let a drunk person drive, you're just as guilty of murder as the driver." Steven paused again, and reached in his other pocket, and pulled out his phone. "You've all got one of these. They save lives. And they can do it in all sorts of ways.
"First, you can call your parents and say 'sorry, but I've had something to drink and I need a ride home!' Well, you have to have forgiving parents who are willing to do that and who haven't been drinking themselves but almost all parents will be happy to do it. It's an option. Second, and don't laugh, you can call the police and ask for a ride home and they'll give you one, no questions asked, because they don't want to scrape you off the road like they had to scrape Nick off the road. Third, do what my parents have done. On my phone, right here, I've got an Uber App and if I'm stuck and my parents can't pick me up, I can take an Uber and they'll pay the bill without asking why or anything. Fourth, and this is the worst case scenario, you can call me and I'll get you an Uber. My dad says he's happy to pay twenty bucks to save a life rather than see someone wheeled into the morgue at his hospital."
Steven looked at the audience who were sitting in stunned silence. "Twenty bucks. Think about what you can do for twenty bucks. Two movies tickets and some soda and popcorn. Or a large gourmet pizza. Or you can kill a kid and destroy two families who'll be in mourning for the rest of their lives. Twenty goddamn measly bucks.
"So, to finish up, here's a little mantra I made up yesterday, it's not very good or catchy, and maybe someone here can think of something better, and maybe the school can have a competition and give a prize to the kid who has the best mantra, so here's mine: 'LET YOUR PHONE GET YOU HOME'.
"Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!"
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