The bad news is that Howard had forgotten his speech and its accompanying PowerPoint with its catchy New Kids on the Block score to increase his "withitness" factor.
Nothing he could do about it now, though. Just step up to the microphone and speak from the heart.
Medford High's principal and former football coach Mr. Ogden Seago introduced Howard as "one of this community's most upright criminals and a well-deserved winner of the Rotary Club's 'Convict with a Conscience Award' in 2012."
As Howard walked to the podium, his knees threatening to give way, the six assistant principals, all of them thirty-something white guys, applauded thunderously, and the students got busy texting, all except for a shy young ninth-grader five rows back quietly snuffing out a fire in her lap ignited by her Samsung 7.
|Never text & drive using a Samsung 7|
Howard knew from reading Cecilia Breck's Shallow Mind, Superficially Inclined: TED Talks for the Dense (1979) and Cicero's Exemplary Exordia: Id Facere Potes!* (55 B.C) that one should always begin a speech with a light touch, a humorous anecdote, and -- if you're speaking at a nudist colony -- picture the audience in clothes.
He considered telling the story of his frozen-squirrel collection, but thought better of it after recollecting that ill-advised project's unfortunate ending.
"Thank you, Mr. Seago, assistant principals, teachers, students, firemen -- pardon me, firepersons -- It's good to be here. Uhh . . . heh, heh, forgive my nerves, I'm just not used to speaking to a captive audience," he said and waited in vain for an appreciatory chuckle from the kids. (You know, because he was an abductor. Oh, never mind!)
"As you know, I'm here primarily to help you avoid abduction at the hands of, uh, an abductor. After growing up around abductors and then spending many years of successfully abducting people of all ages from all walks of life, I know all the tricks of the trade, of course, but also the best ways to avoid these often unpleasant encounters: Don't take candy from strangers, scream every time you see someone you don't know, and, last but not least, should you be abducted by a male, kick him soundly and repeatedly either in the groin, or gonads, or testicles, or testes. Any one of these should work.
"Matilda, you've been abducted, what, five times now? Is there anything you'd like to add?"
Caught in no man's land in a game of Battlefield 1, Matilda, without looking up, shrugged and muttered, "God, I don't know. Just don't be styuuupid. Whatever!"
"Thanks, Matilda. Um . . . ." Here Howard put his hand over the mic and looked over his shoulder at the administrators. "I'm all done here," he whispered. "How much time do we have left?"
The six assistant principals looked at their watches simultaneously, then responded as one: "Fifty-five minutes."
"Okaaay," Howard said. "Let me see if I can come up with something."
He looked over a sea of heads bowed as if in prayer, all the seats filled except the charred one five rows back, and he began to talk, his voice a rich blend of Jeremy Irons and Frankie Valli, circa 1962:
"Kids, look around you! Have you all been abducted? Look at this soulless edifice in which you sit this lovely morning. Could a building be less artful, more bland? Did its architect choose function over form, over any modicum of beauty, something to lift the spirits of bored, anxious, hormone-charged, sleep-deprived humans going through the most stressful years of their lives?
"And if the architect did so choose, then he has fallen short even of his modest goal.The light is ugly and artificial, the sound broken, discordant, alternately fading into the ugly ceiling and caroming off the sullen walls.
"Surely, children, you have been abducted. No free human would choose to spend the critical formative years of the short life she's given in this junior-varsity penitentiary. . . ."
But here Howard paused. All the words worth speaking had vanished. He could only recall one line from his prepared speech -- "Abduction begins at conception" -- but he had forgotten the context.
He silently prayed, without even moving his lips, that the Lord would speak to him from, say, a whirlwind, saying, "Harken thee, my servant Howard, and speak thee thou words of wisdom to thine children, yea, they that are mine to boot, and, though thou be sore afraid, thou needs must suffer the children to come unto thee, not the current-day meaning of suffer, but the old one, meaning allow. Now do it!"
But the Lord did not speak to Howard, nor did Howard hear him. The auditorium's silence was palpable as he and Matilda exited, then made their way through a sea of texting teens till they finally arrived at Howard's '65 Buick Riviera, at which time he gently returned her to the trunk, hit "play" on Taken 3, and set forth on his journey home.
When he arrived, he asked Tally to "give [him] some personal space," while he brooded over the morning's disaster, so shameful it surpassed even that time when, in the grips of a Jaegermeister-inflicted hangover, he accidentally brushed his teeth with Preparation-H.
He had let down his community and his profession. This must never happen again.
Almost immediately, a plan came to him. Next week, a national abduction conference would be held in nearby Townsville. According to the flyer he saw at the Medford petting zoo, the keynote speaker would be none other than Jedidiah Einsatzgruppe, author of the abductor's bible, Between the Ding and the Dong: Abduction and the Efficient Uses of Time.
Where better to learn more about his calling and improve his ability to articulate it oratorically? He would go there, then, yes, as soon as the next chapter of his life began.
*Roughly translated, "Exemplary Introductions: You Can Do It!"