If You Don't Have Anything Nice to Say, p.1Leila Sales
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For Emily Heddleson, my constant partner, the closest I’ll ever come to having a big sister of my own
“We tend to relentlessly define people by the worst mistake they ever made.”
“That is not what I meant at all;
That is not it, at all.”
—from “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” by T. S. ELIOT
“But what one ‘means’ is neither important nor relevant.”
—from Between the World and Me, by TA-NEHISI COATES
I’m seventeen years old and I have already been famous twice in my life. The first occasion was a dream come true. The second occasion was a nightmare from which I still cannot wake up.
Fame seems from afar like one of those things that’s inherently great. Like owning a pony! It’s only once you get it that you realize your pony is in fact a wild stallion. It will turn on you. It will wreak havoc. It will run away. It cannot be contained.
My fame arrived, both times, because I love words. I love the sounds they make, the funny and surprising ways that the same twenty-six letters work together in infinite different combinations. I love the stories behind words: where they come from, where they’re going. I love piecing them together like a puzzle.
You get punished for loving something too much. That is the truth of it all.
This sounds stupid now, but I used to want to be a writer. I thought that writing might be a good place for all the words I have rattling around in my brain. And it was, for a little while. Until someone read what I had written.
That’s supposed to be the best, right? You work hard on something, you practice and execute and refine it, and you claim, “It’s just for my own enjoyment. As long as I like doing it, that’s all that matters.” But even as you say that—because you know it is the noble thing to say—what you really hope is that outsiders who know what they’re talking about will see this thing you have produced and say, “You’re a genius!”
So I’ll own up to it: I didn’t just want to write. I wanted to write, and I wanted people to read what I had written, and to like it, and to like me by extension.
This obviously did not go the way I had envisioned it.
I don’t know what the moral of this story is. That’s how you know it’s not a good story. Good stories have morals. The moral is that there’s no place like home, or the moral is that love conquers all, or the moral is that love actually conquers nothing of consequence. You should come away from a story thinking that you at least kind of understand what the point of it was. That it wasn’t just a bunch of made-up people doing made-up things to no purpose.
What is the moral of my story? Don’t aspire to make anything of yourself? Don’t try to do anything? No one will ever understand you? Shut up and sit down? Whatever the moral is, it’s clear that I haven’t learned it yet. I am no wiser for my errors. Wounded, but no wiser.
The best I can hope for is that my story isn’t over yet. That the moral will show up sometime much later.
Before we go any further, I want to make sure you understand this: I am not a good person. If that’s important to you, to only read things by good people and about good people, where all their conflicts are unfair things that happened to them despite their pluck and kindness, then you should stop reading right now. I am not the girl for you.
I’m sure you know what I did. Everyone does. You might not remember that I did this. Or you might remember that somebody did it, but not that the person in question is me. I will jog your memory because I don’t want our relationship to be founded on any pretense. I want you to know who you’re dealing with here.
Pretense. If you trace its origins way back, it comes from the medieval Latin word praetendere, which later turned into pretend. Use it in a sentence: I have no pretense to innocence.
I am Winter Halperin. I’m the one who went online after the National Spelling Bee and posted, “We learned many surprising things today. Like that dehnstufe is apparently a word, and that a black kid can actually win the Spelling Bee.”
That’s what I wrote. And I put it online for the whole world to see.
You can stop reading now, if you want.
Who would say such a thing? What kind of racist, insensitive, attention-seeking, sheltered, clueless bitch would say something that basically amounts to, Wow, I didn’t know black people knew words!? That’s what everybody wanted to know.
Well, no. They didn’t actually want to know. If they had, they would have asked me. I have this fantasy sometimes where CNN or NBC has me in for an interview, and the whole world is watching, and the news anchor asks me in a very calm way, “Winter, do you want to explain why you did it?” And I respond in an equally calm way, and I explain myself, and then the whole world understands and is satisfied.
This would never happen. The nightly news doesn’t care what I have to say. Nobody does. And if I were given the opportunity to explain myself, I would somehow screw it up, my words would get twisted again, and whatever I said in my defense would be used to make me look even more racist, insensitive, and bitchy than I already do.
However, this doesn’t stop me from sometimes explaining myself to my mirror. Like if anyone ever asks, I want to make sure I’m ready. Like I need to say it aloud sometimes, even if I’m the only one who can hear, just to remind myself what the truth is. It sounds good, I think, when the only person listening is me. But what do I know? Lots of things sound good to me. I can’t trust myself.
It was close to midnight on a Thursday in late May, four weeks before my high school graduation, when I wrote and posted that: “We learned many surprising things today. Like that dehnstufe is apparently a word, and that a black kid can actually win the Spelling Bee.” I brushed my teeth and then checked to see if anyone had read my post. Already Corey had liked it and Mackler had reposted it, and that pleased me, that in only five minutes two of my friends had given their approval. Then I went to bed.
I silenced my phone, as I always do. When I first got it, I used to leave my phone on overnight. But then the screen shattered. (Technically, this was my fault, since I threw it against the wall. In my defense, it was beeping with a notification of a new crossword puzzle’s availability at four a.m.) I never bothered to repair the screen, but I did start silencing the ringer while I slept, figuring that anyone who needed to reach me could wait until the morning.
What I didn’t realize is that a life can be destroyed in the course of one night.
When my alarm went off, I looked at my phone for the weather, which is what I do every morning as an excuse to stay in bed for an extra minute. But I couldn’t even get to the weather, because my phone was filled with notifications. And I don’t mean that Corey had texted me minute-by-minute updates of the old Star Trek episode that he was watching, or that I’d gotte
It was hard to read any of these notifications, because new ones kept coming in on top of them. So I knew that something bad had happened, but my first instinct was that a bad thing must have happened to everybody. Maybe the president had been assassinated or an earthquake had wiped out the entirety of California except for my house. What else would I possibly need to know about with so much intensity?
I finally managed to get one of the notifications open, but without context, it didn’t make any sense. “I can’t believe you still haven’t apologized,” it said. It was from someone whose name and face I didn’t recognize, an adult, and I didn’t even wonder why I’d need to apologize to this woman, but instead wondered who she had mistaken me for.
The next message said, “Winter Halperin is a racist bitch who deserves to burn in hell,” and that was the moment at which I panicked. I jumped out of bed and ran downstairs to where my mother stood, resting her hands on the countertop, leveling a bleary-eyed gaze at the espresso machine as it whirred.
“Mom,” I said. “Mom, Mom, Mom.”
She turned, looking alarmed—probably as much by the fact that I was awake and downstairs so early as by the horror in my voice.
“Winter? What’s wrong?”
I shook my head and thrust my phone into her hands.
“I don’t know what…” She trailed off as she started to read. “What is this all about?” she asked, her voice shrill. The espresso machine started spurting out coffee, but my mother didn’t even seem to notice. “Who are these people?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “I don’t know. I think they’re playing a prank on me.”
“Playing a … Why?” She started poking randomly at my phone.
“Mom,” I said. “Stop it, you don’t know how to…” My mom isn’t that old, but she is old enough to be terrible at technology. She somehow managed to turn on the ringer, which resulted in about a hundred consecutive beeping sounds.
“Oy gevalt. What did I do? What did I do?” she asked, frantically jabbing at the screen.
“Mom.” I tried to wrest it out of her hands, but she was still trying to fix the situation by pressing buttons, so she wasn’t letting go, and I pulled the phone toward me, and she pulled it toward her, saying, “Just one second,” and then my phone went flying up into the air, crash-landed on the floor, and went skidding under the refrigerator, knocking down a magnetized finger puppet of Mozart as it went.
“What is your problem?” I yelled, even though I knew that whatever this problem was, it was far too big to be my mother’s fault.
“At least that beeping stopped,” she pointed out. “Maybe all those terrible messages have stopped, too.”
“They were on the internet, Mom. If we looked on my computer, they would still be there … Oh my God, why? How can we make this go away? Where is Dad?”
“He already left for Portland,” Mom said absently.
My father is a sales representative for a toy company, so he spends a lot of time on the road, visiting toy stores or attending conventions, with his car packed full of puzzles and glow-in-the-dark bouncy balls and, sometimes, magnetized finger puppets of famous composers.
“Where’s my phone?” Mom asked, feeling around on the counter as if maybe her phone were right there but she was for some reason unable to see it.
“Probably still charging in your room,” I answered. “Mom. Drink your coffee. I need you to be helpful right now.” My mother gains roughly ten IQ points for every sip of caffeine that she downs in the morning.
She drank her coffee. “Can we just tell them that they need to stop? This is harassment. You’re a minor. I don’t even think this is legal. I’m going to call my lawyer.”
I nodded vigorously. Even with my phone silent, maybe destroyed, under the fridge, I could still picture those messages that had lit it up: You are such a bitch. You are such an idiot. What is Winter Halperin’s PROBLEM? Mom must be right. That couldn’t be legal stuff to say, not to a seventeen-year-old.
“I’m going to get my phone,” Mom told me. She strode forward, and I stuck to her like a burr. I didn’t want to be alone.
There was a banging at the front door, and I grabbed my mom in a panic. Could it be that one of those crazies had somehow tracked down where I live and was outside right this minute?
Mom seemed to have the same thought, because she said, “Stay here. I’ll find out who it is.”
I stood alone in the kitchen, knotting and unknotting my hands. Without really thinking it through, I grabbed a chef’s knife from the drying rack. In case whoever was at the door came for me, I’d be ready to … what? Cut them? Yeah, right. I’d never hurt anyone in my life. I couldn’t even manage to spar when I took karate in first grade. If a crazy from the internet was here to kill me, I’d have more luck winning a debate than a physical fight.
Then my sister, Emerson, came flying into the kitchen, her blond topknot bouncing up and down on her head. Mom was right behind her.
“Oh, it’s you.” I breathed a sigh of relief, set down the knife in what I hoped was a casual manner, and gave her a big hug. “I thought you weren’t getting home until later?” Emerson had just finished her freshman year in the University of Oklahoma’s musical theater program.
“Apparently she decided to drive all through the night so she could get home earlier,” Mom said drily. “You can imagine how her mother feels about this.”
“That’s why I didn’t tell you in advance,” Emerson said, “because I knew you’d worry. But look, here I am, I’m safe and alive—”
“Kina hora,” Mom muttered.
“—and the person you really need to be worrying about right now is Winter,” Emerson went on. She turned to me. “Winter Leona Halperin. What the hell is wrong with you? Did you actually tell the entire world that African Americans don’t know how to spell?”
And that was when I put two and two together.
“Oh,” I said. “Oh my God. Is that what this is all about?”
“Is what what this is all about?” Mom demanded.
“My friends have been texting me about this since, like, three a.m.,” Emerson said. “I tried to reach you. Don’t any of you people ever look at your phones?”
“My phone’s under the fridge,” I answered.
“Emerson, you were texting while you were driving?” Mom exclaimed.
“Of course not,” Emerson said, which I immediately took to mean yes, definitely. “But Brianna just sent me this Yahoo article a second ago, and I had to … Look, it’s easier if I read it to you.” She cleared her throat. “The headline is ‘Spelling Bee Champ Disses Minorities.’”
“‘Disses’?” I repeated. “What kind of reputable news source uses disses?”
Emerson kept reading. “‘If you haven’t gotten caught up in the general societal bashing of one Winter Halperin (yes, her name really is Winter), you must be living under a rock. To bring you up to speed—last night, after the final round of the annual Scripps National Spelling Bee, the California teen took to the internet to post the following: ‘We learned many surprising things today. Like that dehnstufe is apparently a word, and that a black kid can actually win the Spelling Bee.’
“‘Ms. Halperin was referring to the victory of Sintra Gabel, the eighth grader from Queens, New York, who took home the gold in this year’s spelling bee by correctly spelling the word dehnstufe, which means ‘a lengthened grade’ and derives from the German.
“‘When asked for her opinion on Ms. Halperin’s statement, Ms. Gabel declined to comment, but her father said, “My daughter is terrifically smart and hardworking, and as of tonight she is the best speller in the nation. It’s unfortunate and hurtful that this has been turned into a conversation about her race rather than her intellect and her accomplis
“‘Ms. Halperin’s original post has, in the few hours since she wrote it, been reposted and commented on more than twenty thousand times. “It’s the very definition of viral content,” explains Dr. Orlando Beaudrault, professor of media studies at Northwestern University. And where will it stop? “Who knows,” says Dr. Beaudrault. “As the internet grows, so too do its viruses. It seems like every time we see an explosion of outrage like this one, it gets bigger and bigger. How far will this specific one go? As far as I can tell, the sky is the limit.”
“‘If you’re wondering why so many people are reacting so strongly to a teenager’s post, all you need to know is who Ms. Halperin is: she herself was the champion of the National Spelling Bee five years ago, when she was in seventh grade. Her winning word was ptyalagogue. Now a high school senior, Ms. Halperin will be attending Kenyon College starting this fall.’”
Emerson clicked off her phone and crossed her arms.
“I don’t understand this,” Mom whispered, steadying herself on the wall.
“I’m going to delete that post,” I said. “Right now.”
“It won’t matter,” Emerson said gently. “You’re already crucified. It’s too late.”
And, of course, she was right.
What else happened on that first day? I can’t give a full account; even as the moments unfolded, I didn’t know what was happening to me. I felt like I was drowning, like I kept losing consciousness and then regaining it only to find myself further and further underwater.
I stayed home from school, which was unprecedented. Some people, like my friend Mackler, have a pretty laissez-faire relationship with school attendance: a poor night’s sleep or the first warm day of spring is reason enough to stay home. But in my family, you follow through on your commitments and show up at school or work unless you are on death’s doorstep. But maybe I was on death’s doorstep, because Mom and I didn’t even discuss the idea of my leaving the house. It was as if school didn’t exist, as if nothing in the real, tangible world existed, and the only world of consequence was the one on the internet.
If You Don't Have Anything Nice to Say by Leila Sales / History & Fiction / Young Adult have rating 3 out of 5 / Based on18 votes