Damnation by Caffeine

I never imagined that a sip of coffee could do eternal damage to my soul, but there are still a great many things I’ve yet to learn.

I’d been asked to travel southward down the shank of Illinois on a nippy March morning to act as judge in a high school speech contest. I’ve judged hundreds of these delightful events and was looking forward to scoping out the young talent in a part of the state that was new for me. I’d been informed ahead of time that the rules for this contest would be slightly different than the contests I’d normally judged, since this was a contest between private Christian schools. I couldn’t imagine what special rules private Christians would require but I thought, Heck. … speech is speech, so it can’t be that different.

Speech contests usually start early in the morning with a judges’ meeting before the school busses start rolling in. Most schools provide a little light breakfast resembling something you’d find in the lobby of a Motel Six. … a few rolls and coffee. When I arrived at the judges’ meeting in the bowels of St. Peculiar I found the frosted rolls but no coffee. Surely there was some mistake. Surely the coffee was on the way. Wrong, Seymour. Our kind host smiled apologetically and said that there was no coffee. “You mean it’s on the way?” Another contrite smile. “No. We don’t believe in using stimulants inside the school building.” What? Wait a minute! Who signed me up for this! I said, “There’s a Casey’s down the street. I’ll be back before the meeting starts.” I was told I’d have to leave it outside the building.

Okay, it was a very conservative school in a very conservative part of our state but this was taking holiness a step too far. I noticed that most of the young female contestants wore skirts that reached below the level of their socks. That made at least a little sense since it’s well known that bare ankles often lead to boiling libidos in adolescent males which is the entryway to a life of perversion, drug use, cat beating, and probably mass murder, but coffee. … come on now! Gimme a break! I felt like such a delinquent as I snuck a cappuccino into my sippy cup and headed back to the school, all the time trying to remember the last time I’d been sent to the principal’s office.

Surreptitious coffee in hand I went to my assigned room to begin my day of judging. When I walked in most of the contestants were present along with a generous smattering of family and friends. I in no way mean to demean any particular sect but I swear that this old man was the most colorful bird in the room. Gray and black seemed to be the colors of the season. … or century. All nice folks, I assure you, but so very quiet that I felt that I was disturbing things by my very presence.

I author a good many of the speeches used throughout the U.S. and during my day’s jaunt at St. Peculiar I counted and found that of the 22 presentations I judged that day, I’d written 21 of them. It’s quite common for kids to stand in front of me when I’m judging and assume that I know what I’ve written, word-for-word. Heck, I can barely remember the titles. But as the day progressed, even my foggy recollection of my own work start playing tricks on me. Something was missing. … again, and again. Somewhere toward noon and out of curiosity I asked to see a couple of the scripts they had memorized. Sure enough, there was my name at the top but certain words had been X-ed out, like those papers that the CIA releases to the press without all the juicy stuff deleted. I could still read through the censor marks and found that words like “darn” “idiot” “stupid” “geesh” and “shucks” had been banned. Someone had stepped in to save me from being the ruination of American youth. Darn. Shucks. Geesh.

I’ll admit that I might have been less than attentive during that long day of judging since I was constantly worried that someone would detect the aroma of coffee coming out of my illegal sippy cup. I wondered if St. Peculiar had a caffeine-sniffing dog prowling the premises, no doubt a St. Bernard. My only really obvious mistake of the day came when I was giving oral comments to a couple of youngsters who’d just performed a duet. I was reminding them of the importance of good diction and warned them that sloppy articulation will creep up on you, just like old underwear. As soon as I’d said it I knew that I’d used the wrong metaphor in this hotbed of piety. I could hear the air being sucked out of the room as the spectators turned toward me. I could just hear them wondering what I had in my sippy cup.

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