As a writer, soccer coach and gay-issues activist, I'm used to public speaking. I've addressed hundreds of audiences, from teachers in Alaska to the upper levels of management of a Fortune 100 company.

Until last week though, I'd never talked to fifth graders.

I did it twice, and lived to tell the tale. Ned Batlin -- the Westport Police Department's DARE officer -- asked me to speak at the Long Lots and Green's Farms Elementary School graduation ceremonies for DARE students.

I was honored --and intimidated. I had no idea what I could say that would not sound preachy, trite or geezerish. When my quick calculations revealed that my audience was born in this century---- Bill Clinton is to them as Harry Truman is to me -- I realized I could be in over my head.

But I love a challenge. Plus, I was a fifth grader once myself -- back in the JFK days -- so I went to work. I tried to remind myself what it's like to be that age -- on the cusp of adolescence; looking forward to growing up but fearing what lies ahead; ready to step into the wilds, but longing to keep one foot planted firmly in secure ground -- and gathered my thoughts.

It's been a while since I'd been in an elementary school. Mine -- Burr Farms-- is now athletic fields and big houses. I actually went to Long Lots (when it was a junior high), and played rec basketball at Green's Farms (the highlight of my hoops career). I used those memories as starting points, then hit the main idea.

I told my young audiences that although many things have changed in Westport since 19-whatever, much has not. Yesterday -- just like today -- some kids knew exactly who they were, and what they wanted to do in life. Some had no clue.

There were some whom everyone thought would be successful -- and who are. They're writers, actors, musicians, scientists, businesspeople, cops.

There were some kids everyone thought would be losers -- yet turned out great. At some point---- middle school, Staples, even later -- something clicked. They discovered they had a talent for art, writing, starting a business or selling things. They surprised their teachers, friends, even their parents, and today they're doing awesome things.

And there were those everyone thought would light up the world -- but they crashed and burned. They did not become successful; some went to jail or lived on the streets. Most people who grow up in Westport have great lives, I said -- yet not always. It doesn't happen often, I said. But it happens often enough that all of us want to make sure it doesn't happen again.

I told the fifth graders about the soccer players I coach, and the football and lacrosse players Officer Batlin works with. I talked about the power of making good choices, and how through hard work and commitment a child who may not have the most talent can make the most of himself. On the other hand, a boy or girl with all the talent in the world can squander it. A key factor in both situations is the choices everyone makes.

It's not just sports, I said. No matter what you do -- dance, building things, art, writing, science -- there is a right way to do things, and a wrong way.

DARE teaches decision-making. I emphasized that point: Everyone has the power to choose the right way. Every boy or girl can say "yes" or "no" when someone tries to get them to do something wrong. "You can decide you want to be as good as you can, in any activity you love," I said. "No one can stop you from giving your best.

"And only you can stop you from making a decision that can hurt."

In less than four years, those fifth graders will be at Staples. They'll be the ones making our soccer, football and lacrosse teams great. They'll sing and act fantastically. They'll bring our math, robotics and debate teams to new heights and make our yearbook and newspaper memorable.

I guess it was a decent speech. They applauded, and a few kids came up later to thank me.

But DARE graduation isn't about the guest speaker. It's about the graduates.

As part of the program, each student writes an essay. One from each class is selected to read his or hers.

With simple, direct words -- and plenty of honesty -- they talked about DARE and their lives. One wrote, "I hope I never get an offer to do drugs. But if I do, I'll know what to do." Another discussed the toll alcohol has taken on a relative. A third said simply, "DARE is a part of me."

I appreciated the chance to talk to the fifth graders last week. I appreciated even more the chance to listen.

Dan Woog is a Westport writer, and his Woog's World appears each Friday. He can be reached at: dwoog@aoponline.net. His personal blog is www.danwoog06880.com