It was Joshua Jones' big moment, and nothing was going to mess it up. Not an impatient audience, not his own nervousness.
The state House of Representatives was eager to get to work Tuesday morning, but the members weren't going anywhere until Joshua did what he had traveled from Floral City to Tallahassee to do.
The 8-year-old had practiced, and now it was showtime. The man standing next to Joshua leaned down. "Okay, Josh," he whispered. "Go for it."
Poised in his wheelchair, Joshua began moving a special wand over a machine known as a "light talker." As the beam from the wand touched red dots near phrases that his mother had entered into the machine, a mechanical voice began speaking.
"I pledge allegiance to the flag ..."
Most of us can say the pledge in our sleep. For those like legislators, who begin each workday with the oath, reciting it can become perfunctory.
Joshua doesn't have that luxury. Born with cerebral palsy, he goes through life without many things that most of us take for granted.
What he does have going for him, though, is a loving, devoted family, and a good friend in Tallahassee, state Rep. Victor Crist, R-Temple Terrace.
That and a cheerful determination that would put a lot of able-bodied people to shame.
As the legislators, staffers and the audience swung full-throat into the Pledge of Allegiance, Joshua scrambled to catch up.
"At first, he was a little uptight," said Crist, who stood beside Joshua. "They had started without him, and there was a little fumbling."
Joshua's condition causes his hand to move slowly and shakily. He also has difficulty applying pressure. All the more reason why the machine he uses to communicate is truly a miracle of modern technology.
Kim Jones, his mother, explains that certain often-used phrases can be programmed into the computerized machine. When the light wand Joshua aims connects with a red dot near the phrase he wants to say, the machine "talks" for him.
"He hits two things to say, "I want a drink.' It has a lot of flexibility to say the things he wants, like, "I want my ninja turtles.' "
On Tuesday, Joshua was moving his light wand as quickly as possible, but the people in the House were that much faster.
Crist said he looked at the youngster, "and I felt his energy." Joshua was pushing on resolutely. Soon, he had caught up.
". . . and to the republic for which it stands . . ."
+ + +
"He adapted quickly under pressure," marveled Crist, "especially with all of these strange people and cameras around."
Joshua's composure even impressed his mother. "I was surprised that he didn't get upset," Mrs. Jones said.
She also was glad that Joshua's 7-year-old sister, Ashley, standing next to him and reciting the pledge herself, didn't jump in and try to work the machine for him.
"He hates it for her to help him," she said, or when she climbs into his wheelchair for a spin. It's partly normal sibling rivalry, she said, but on a more personal level.
"She doesn't always understand, (the wheelchair) is his legs, the machine is his voice."
And so Mrs. Jones, a nurse at Citrus Memorial Hospital, looked on with pride as her children distinguished themselves.
". . . one nation, under God . . ."
+ + +
Crist, who has known Joshua's father, Tim, a Floral City car detailer, "since we both were about Joshua's age," arranged the special moment for Joshua. He said House Speaker Bo Johnson had been accommodating, but on Tuesday morning, Crist said he sensed a certain edginess in the room.
"We're at the halfway point (of the session), and most of the legislators are starting to stress out. But we looked at that little fellow and realized our lives aren't that tough.
"People came up to me and asked what was his challenge. They thought it was incredible that he knows the computer at 8. But Josh never ceases to amaze me. He's overcome every obstacle with energy and a smile."
Joshua's family, including grandparents and aunts, were on hand not just to cheer him and Ashley on, but to lobby so that people with conditions like his don't get overlooked in the ongoing health care debate.
It's unlikely that many people in the House that day will soon forget Joshua and the people he represents. "I did it for him, because it's something he deserves," Crist said, "but I also did it for everyone there."
In the end, thoughts of health care debate were far away. The moment was golden for a special child who had fulfilled a dream.
"I looked into his eyes and he was so happy and proud," Crist said. "His parents came down right away, they were so proud of their boy."
". . . with liberty and justice for all."