Vulnerable, Haley Webb stood in front of her family, teachers, and classmates. Cheeks flush and reddened with tears, heart racing and pounding, the speech notes in her hand, she knew as her voice broke that she’d been set up to fail. She hadn’t even been given time to read the speech before she shakily approached the podium. Why was she being forced to do this? But as soon as she looked down, it all made sense.
The days leading up to this had been filled with both excitement and dread. Her school, Bingham Middle School, was preparing for its Veteran’s Day celebration. The holiday, which celebrates the United States Armed Forces, was to be celebrated with speeches and performances- the former of which Haley wanted no part in.
Though she would be performing with the Bingham Band as a flutist, the shy teenager was not one for delivering epic prose in front of the thousand or so attendees. Most of her teachers respected this, that not all their students were bound to become the next great orator. All except for the principal.
Being a flutist was different from public speaking. It was a team effort where she could rely on her bandmates should her anxieties flare up. With public speaking, she was utterly alone on stage, with no one to help. Alone was something Haley Webb knew all too well, especially with her family’s history.
Haley Webb came from a line of servicemen and women, and for that, her family had sacrificed countless times. Lonely birthdays and holidays, seats at important events sitting empty, and long distance calls coupled with anxiety after the screen goes dark, were all things Haley knew- and Veteran’s Day would bring it back. But if it is a show they want, then it’s a show they’re going to get.
Veteran’s Day was a mix of pride and pain for the girl, and being able to focus on her upcoming performance along with the band was a welcome relief from the reminders of the costs. She wasn’t expecting more from the holiday than to perform and then join her family afterward for lunch. Her principal had other plans.
To Brett Playter, Haley Webb was the perfect person for his brilliant finish. After all was played and spoken, he wanted her to close with a speech he’d written himself. Her ties with the Armed Forced would tug on every heartstring in the room. He came to her a couple days before the event, knowing she couldn’t refuse.
It was too late to get out of the closing words and too late to really prepare at all. Haley’s anxieties compounded when she realized her father, Sgt. First Class Jason Webb, still hadn’t responded the day of. He’d been stationed in South Korea, and according to the news, there’d been some national unrest.
Her family quiet on her father’s condition, Haley went into the ceremony full of unrest, herself. She was only given the speech at the ceremony. With no time to look it over, no time to prepare, the panicked girl struggled to the podium, hands slick with sweat. To her surprise, the first words were her father’s name.
Alone on stage, she read aloud the speech that had been prepared. It was all about her father, and the good that he had done for the country. Everything came flooding back – the loneliness, the fear – and she struggled to keep going. Little did she know the reason was about to walk through the door.
A man in uniform stepped forth, and through her blinding tears, Haley recognized a face she had longed to see: her father, Sgt. Webb. Tears continued to flow, but tears of joy as he wrapped her in a fatherly embrace. She sobbed into her father’s arms, but had to wonder- how exactly had he known to come?
“Are you surprised?” Sgt. Webb asked his daughter. But Haley, still in shock, couldn’t speak. The pair embraced for a few more minutes before Sgt. Webb took the microphone to finish the speech, and to explain how it all had come about: through scheming between himself, his family, and Principal Brett Playter.
When Haley and her dad talked on Skype a few weeks earlier, he already knew he had been granted leave to come home – though he’d decided he wasn’t going to tell her yet. When he saw how excited she was for the Veterans Day assembly and how much she’d love to have him there, he knew it would make for the best surprise. Now he had to put it all in motion.
Sgt. Webb told the rest of his family about his plans, and they contacted the school staff to ask for their help. Mr. Playter knew this would make a very special Veterans Day – he just had to figure out how to surprise Haley. “I’d seen reunions on television where a young boy or girl is throwing a pitch at a baseball game and the catcher is their father,” he said, “but we couldn’t have Sgt. Webb come into our assembly wearing a mask, so I came up with another idea.”
Mr. Playter’s idea worked like a charm. “Halfway through I kind of thought that it was him,” Haley said. “I kept reading and I looked up and he’s walking into the gymnasium. I couldn’t believe it. This is better than Christmas!” And what was even better, she’d get to spend a whole week with her father.
Sgt. Webb had been given a week of leave to come home. “And we’re going to spend all that time together,” he said. They definitely earned it, after all the absences they’d had to endure. “Haley’s gone through tons of sacrifices,” he said. Now, Haley doesn’t have to fear for his safety- or for public speeches- for a long time.