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Battle Pay

There is a certain piece in my repertoire which I am very protective of.

It is an hour long story called "Hard Knocks" which portrays a feisty adolescent and his deaf sister as they try to cope with their father’s increasing alcoholism. Due to the sensitive nature of the program, when I perform it in high school assemblies, I am very particular about lights, sound, staging, and most especially - preventing any potential distractions. I always assign a staff "watchdog" to look out for the unexpected so that I won’t have to break out of the mood of the story to deal with any disturbance. Very rarely do I ever have any kind of problem because as the drama unfolds, the audience collectively becomes very protective of the story themselves.

I had occasion to perform this piece at a special school which serves as a kind of a last resort for troubled youths, from elementary age on up. I don’t usually present this program for children younger than junior high school, but as they had previewed the program and were adamant about wanting the lower grades included, I consented. I also knew that they had a fine staff and had a ratio of one for every 3 students. As expected, they were a relatively wired group but as they became invested in the story, they too became respectfully attentive. In the delicate parts of the story, you could literally hear a pin drop, but in this case it was a dime which rolled from the front row across the area where I was performing. It was a distinct but minor distraction, which really didn’t affect me, but I was glad when it finally stopped its roll, far from its young owner.

When the boy, perhaps eleven years old, got up to retrieve it however, it took a little more discipline to disregard the disturbance. But now that he had his coin again, that was the end of it, or so I thought. To my chagrin however, it dropped again a few minutes later, shattering a dead quiet. Again the boy’s retrieval. "Just leave it!" I thought, a bit more distracted than the first time. The coin and the floor had a thing going now and they and the boy managed to find each other several more times during the course of the rest of my presentation which was intense enough, thank you. At each drop, roll and stop he would stop, drop and crawl after it. This boy wanted his dime, but not badly enough to put it in his damn pocket and leave it there. Every time he repossessed it, I quietly prayed that each time was the last. It was like waiting for the other shoe to drop, only to surmise that the clod upstairs must be a quadruped at least. In this case however, it was the twerp in the front row of course, who was a severely butter-fingered boor.

The story I was performing usually takes all the concentration that I can muster, but I was finding that a massive number of brain cells were working overtime, thinking what to do the next time this dimebomb explodes on the floor. Try a quick, icy Don’t-even-think-about-it glare at him? Casually stop, drop and crawl, and pocket it myself? No, mostly what I’m thinking about is not thinking about the 80 pound baboon on maneuvers in front of me and his semi-automatic M-80 which he fires off at random. This is just one of those supreme tests of professional mettle which I must pass in order to receive my storytelling medal of honor even under the bombardment of this concentration-piercing metal shrapnel. Then, after I’ve displayed my steely cool under fire and it’s finally all over, I can take the kid backstage and execute him.

No, but as hard as it might be for me to do, I do need to say something to him afterward, by way of educating this unwittingly invasive loose cannon. This is a lot to think about, all the while delivering an emotionally gruelling drama. I actually do manage to valiantly override the flak, both external and internal, and the otherwise quiet focus I receive from these youngsters with clinically deficient attention spans, and their ovation, is the badge of valor that I am awarded. Despite the challenge, this was a very rewarding group to perform for, but not as much as I am yet aware of. And the hardest part of my job now, still lies ahead of me.

I owe it to the performers who follow me, to the boy who was simply unaware of the distraction his behavior caused, and to myself, to do the right thing and speak to him afterward, as tactfully as I am able, though the backstage execution idea is still more appealing. The easiest thing of course would be just to forget about it and not say anything. It was over after all and it went very well, considering. As gentle as I would try to be, it can’t help but be a squirmy encounter. Why bother? Well, very simply, because I know I’d kick myself soundly on the way home if I didn’t, being such a wimp not to stand up and do the right thing.

I thought - I hate this but I am going to make myself do it. I am going to approach him. No, he’s approaching me. He’s smiling. He tells me he really enjoyed the show and he takes my hand, to shake it I assume. No, to give me something. It is a dime. It is the dime. I try refusing it. He is insistent, he wants me to have it. Not to accept it at this point would be ungracious. My rehearsed words of reproach have no place here as it all sinks in. He was probably holding it, or trying to, the whole time to give to me afterwards. This is not a Purple Heart for injuries received in the line of fire. It is a boy’s dime, made of some silver alloy, but to me, it is my battle-pay and it is pure gold. What can I say? Words fail me as all I can think of to say now is a very sincere "Thank you."

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