Behind the Screen

Hannah Shen
Behind the Screen Hannah Shen is 11 years old. She lives in Basking Ridge, New Jersey, with her brother and parents. She enjoys reading, drawing and writing in her free time. Hannah is inspired by award-winning Erin Hunter (Victoria Holmes, Cherith Baldry, Kate Cary, Tui Sutherland, Gillian Phillip, and Inbali Iserles), and loves reading the Warriors series.

“I slammed down my computer screen. I had expected some pity from the players, not a moderator who banned anybody who disobeyed the rules. He was not at all comforting. In fact, he sounded a lot like my mom.”

I had been waiting for this day all year long.

It wasn’t Christmas. Or Thanksgiving. Or even my birthday.

It was the last day of school.

For as far as I remember, I had never enjoyed school. It just wasn’t fit for me, as some people say. I would prefer to be at home, hacking my computer or playing Minecraft. But this was my favorite time of the school year –– the last day of school, the last period: Only an hour away from freedom. I couldn’t help feeling happy.

I drummed my fingers on the lockers as I walked down the hallway. My last class was math, which I wasn’t particularly good at. Usually, I dreaded going to math class and facing my strict teacher, Mr. Foster. But today was different. As I neared my math classroom, I thought, Only an hour to go! What could possibly go wrong?

When I walked in my math classroom, I caught Mr. Foster staring at me, trying to catch my eye. I didn’t notice, because I was too busy thinking about escaping school and being free. Just one hour! I kept repeating to myself. Then I’m free!

When class finally started, I couldn’t help squirming around in my seat with excitement. Mr. Foster stood up, and announced that he was going to pass out our end of the year math tests. That got my attention. I hadn’t really paid attention to the test, but I couldn’t fail… could I?

Mr. Foster frowned as he reached my desk. When he dropped my test on my desk face-down, he whispered to me, “Meet me after class. We need to talk.”

That really got me worried. I didn’t dare look at my grade, so I just left the test sitting there. I noticed a few kids staring at my test, and I squirmed around some more. A kid named Ash sitting next to me leaned over.

“Hey,” he whispered. “What did you get? I got an A. My mom is going to FREAK OUT when she finds out that I got something wrong.”

“Shut up,” I whispered back to him. “Stop bragging.”

“Hey, just let me see your grade, will you?” Ash asked, irritated. He reached over for my paper.

“NO!” I shouted. But it was too late. He had grabbed my paper off my desk, and sat back in his chair. All eyes turned to us.

Ash’s eyes opened wide as he stared at my paper, open-mouthed. “Lemme see!” Kids from all around called. Even I went up to have a look.

“Boys and girls! Go back to your seats!” Mr. Foster shouted. Nobody besides Ash had time to see my grade. Not even me.

“Here, you can have your test back.” Ash handed me my test. He still seemed shocked. What was my grade? Part of me didn’t want to know.

Mr. Foster sent everyone back to their desks. He began a lecture about keeping your grade to yourself. I didn’t listen. More important thoughts were floating around in my head.

Like my math test.

The rest of the math class was okay. Everyone kept giving me weird looks, while I tried to ignore them. Finally, when math class ended, Mr. Foster called me over to his desk. But I knew I had to see my grade first.

Slowly, I flipped the test over with my eyes glued shut. Nervousness flowed through me as I opened my eyes to take a peek.

When I saw the letter written on the top of my paper, I gasped. I stood up and ran out of the classroom, ignoring Mr. Foster’s calls. I grabbed my belongings from my locker along the way, and sped up as I ran out into the hallway and outside, sobbing.

* * *

I didn’t take the bus home that day. Instead, I ran home, crying the whole way. I didn’t take any notice of anything around me. I just ran, as if it were a way to escape from my teacher, my worries, and my grade.

When my house appeared in sight, I suddenly slowed down. Why was I running home? I thought. Great. Now I’m here early, and my mom is going to suspect that something is wrong. I guess I’ll have to hide out here.

So, quietly, I snuck into the front yard and hid in the bushes. It was uncomfortable, and prickly. Suddenly, a sharp branch poked me. I rolled over and crashed into the door.

“Ouch!” I shouted. I gasped. Did my mom hear that? I crawled back under the bush.

The front door suddenly opened and my mom stepped out.

“James! What are you doing, hiding in a bush? Is something wrong?” she asked.

I hesitated. “Uh, well, Mom,” I began, “I…I just like hiding in bushes. It’s… a new fad, hiding in bushes.”

Mom rolled her eyes, as if she didn’t believe me. I didn’t blame her. She knew that the only place where I would willingly hide in a bush was in Minecraft, and I was nowhere near a computer.

Mom sighed as she let me inside. “Well, you couldn’t have been hiding in a bush just because you felt like it. Come on inside and show me what’s wrong.”

Reluctantly, I followed. I knew I was doomed. For the first time in a while, I wish she would return to the way she once was –– too busy to see any of my grades.

I followed my mom into the living room and we both sat down on the couch. “So, I heard you got your final math test back today,” my mom told me. “How did you do? I hope you didn’t just rush through. This test is very important, you know– you could flunk a grade because of it.”

I shifted nervously in the couch, not daring to respond. My mom just sighed. “Well, if you’re not going to tell me, I guess I’ll have to look for myself. James, go get your test.”
I wasn’t about to give up just then.“Mom… I… uh…”

My mom turned to look at me. “Yes?”

“Well, um… I…”

I had no idea what to say. So I said the first thing that came to mind.

“I LOOOOVE hiding in bushes!” I told her loudly.

My mom shot me a weird look. So instead of arguing, I got up and pulled the math test out from my backpack. I handed it to my mom.

For a moment, my mom seemed to be in complete shock. She shook her head as she stared at the paper. “Oh, James,” she sighed.

“Well, Mom, you always say that an A-minus isn’t an A, so…I guess…”

My mom just shook her head. “James, go upstairs. Go hack your computer or play some Minecraft or something. I need to think. And don’t come down until I tell you to.”

Think. That word never meant anything good. I hated, HATED when my parents told me to leave just so they could think, and anger began to flow through me. Sometimes, I just couldn’t believe my parents.

Once I was upstairs in my bedroom, I loaded up Minecraft. Gaming was a way to make me forget about all my worries and whatever’s going on in life. It was also the perfect place to express my anger.

I chose a random server at the top of my list and logged in. In the chat, I typed, “I HATE MY FAMILY! All I feel is asdfghjkl;!”

A new message popped up from a moderator named NerdyGamr21. “Dude, don’t use so many caps. This is your last warning. Also, I highly doubt that your family would do something worthy of your hate.” And, then and there, I was kicked from the server.

I logged back in.

I used caps again.

This time, no warning. I was permanently banned.

Haha, they could never get away with banning me. I hacked myself back in. This time, I only stayed for about two seconds, enough to type, “Well, you wouldn’t understand what is going on in my family” in the chat.

I slammed down my computer screen. I had expected some pity from the players, not a moderator who banned anybody who disobeyed the rules. He was not at all comforting. In fact, he sounded a lot like my mom.

As I was thinking about that dumb moderator, I suddenly heard the sound of the garage door opening. Was it my dad? Apparently, it was. I cringed. Even though he would never yell at me, I knew he would be disappointed to see my grade.

I heard footsteps coming in the house. I squatted down and mashed my ear into the floorboards to eavesdrop. I could hear my mom, standing up from the couch. A small bang sounded.

“Oh, good, you’re here,” my mom remarked. I heard my mom’s footsteps. “I need to talk to you.”

They began whispering. I couldn’t hear much of what they were saying, but I heard my name involved. It didn’t sound good.

After a while of talking, I heard my dad say, “Mmm. Okay. I’ll go talk to him.” I heard the sound of a paper crinkling, and then my dad’s footsteps up the stairs.

I quickly realized that ‘him’ was me. I sat up and jumped up on the bed, trying to act casual. I opened a book and pretended to read.

A few seconds later, my dad walked in. He had on his “let’s get down to business face.” He sat down next to me and held out my test.

“So, James,” my dad began, “Can you explain your grade to me?”

“Can you really expect me to do well on that dumb test? It was so hard, and I bet nobody really got an A on it. So somehow, you think I can? I might not be super dumb, but I’m not the type you would expect to ace a test as hard as that one! I wish I could, but…”

I searched my mind for a random excuse. Nothing came to mind.

My dad shook his head and sighed. “Honestly, James, I wish you would be more careful sometimes. Now let’s go over this test.”

I sighed inwardly. There was no way out.

“So let’s see. Five wrong here, three wrong here, and six wrong here.” My dad turned to face me. “Looks like you need to work on algebra,” he told me. “That’s a skill you will need for next year.”

My dad flipped a page.

“Come on, James, I’m sure your teacher has explained this to you before. Why can’t you remember this? You have been paying attention in class, right?”

“Well… sort of,” I answered. My dad eyed me suspiciously. “Well… no,” I admitted.  

My dad looked at me from the top of his glasses, but didn’t say anything. He just flipped the page silently.

“Next page. Graphing data –– I remember your tutor taught you this before, but ––” he looked down at the page –– “17 wrong.” My dad turned to look at me again. “You have got to do better. There are only 20 questions on this page. What percent of questions did you get wrong?” He questioned.

I couldn’t believe that he was trying to make me ashamed of my grade by making me do the math. “Hey, how should I know?” I replied, annoyed. “You can’t make me do this!”

My dad stood up. “James, I want you to actually think about this grade. This is serious ––  it can affect your future. I’m going to go downstairs and speak to your mom.” And with that, he left me in my room. Alone.

Part of me felt angry for saying what I did. But most of me felt that my dad deserved it. Why were my parents becoming such jerks all of a sudden?

But I didn’t think about it for too long. With a sigh, I plopped myself down onto my gaming chair and opened up my computer. When all went wrong, Minecraft was the solution. Hopefully, the dumb moderator wouldn’t be there.

* * *

After a long time, my dad finally came upstairs. “James, I’ve made an arrangement for you. The math teacher said that your final grade was an F, and that is not enough to move on to eighth grade. So, you’re going to have to take the test again.”

I nearly fell off my seat when I heard his words. Repeat the test?! How would I do that? I had already failed miserably. How could they expect me to do well this time?

My dad somehow knew what I was thinking. “James, you might think that I’m expecting too much of you. But you can do it. From now on, study every day and you’ll do well.”

I couldn’t believe it. Every day? I was no nerd!

Just as my dad was going to leave, he stopped himself. “I almost forgot –– here’s a packet to help you study. I want it complete by tomorrow.” Then, he left.

I looked through the packet. 10 pages?! My dad really was expecting too much of me! Sure, maybe I could do 10 pages in a week. But one day –– impossible.

“Well, better get started,” I told myself reluctantly. I picked up my pencil and stared down at the paper. Algebra?!! On the first page?!! I shook my head. Nah, I’ll do that later, I thought. Opening up my laptop, I loaded up Minecraft. I have better things to do.

I logged in to the server where I first met the moderator, NerdyGamr21. Surprisingly, he was also on. It was almost as if he knew what I was doing.

Trying to ignore the dumb moderator, I went straight over to the parkour. But then, something in the chat caught my attention.

In the chat, NerdyGamr21 had typed, “Hey, xXProclassGamerXx, if I’ve been here for 20 minutes, how many seconds have I been on for?”

At first, I laughed. Somebody must be having the same problem as me, I thought. But when I noticed players gathering around me and try to punch me in the face, I realized that xXProclassGamerXx was me!

I burst out of the circle of players congregating around me and walked over to where NerdyGamr21 was standing. I told him privately in chat, “SHUT UP!,” and I left.

Imagine a system of gas pipes. There they are, sitting there, minding their own business, until somebody nearby lights a match, and the whole thing blows up. That’s how I felt when StupidGamr21 or whatever his name was insulted me –– I was exploding inside. But I just sat there, glaring at the screen. How dare he insult me!

I’ve had enough gaming for now, I thought. The only problem was that there was nothing else to do. I could do the math packet, but… that was too much work for me, and avoiding the packet came first in my mind.

But something in my mind urged me to finish the packet first. It was a huge burden, and I felt that facing it was the only way to make it go away. Fine! I thought, giving in. My dad will be pretty mad if I don’t do it anyways.

When I looked deep into the problems, I realized that they were not as hard as I thought they would be. I got through the first page in about 40 minutes, and started the second.

I finished the rest of the packet at the same rate. When I was finished, I had already eaten dinner, and it was nearly time for bed. I yawned. Even though the packet was the worst form of torture, I felt a strange type of pride in finishing.

That’s enough for today, I thought. I sat down on my bed, and put my head down on my pillow. I fell asleep instantly, exhausted from all the work. I think I deserve a rest.

* * *

The next few days came and went the exact same way. Each day, my dad would give me a packet to finish. I would also play Minecraft, but I would try to avoid the server where I had first met the moderator, even though it was my favorite.

By the fifth day of following this routine, I was getting really tired of these math packets. The pride of finishing one was wearing off, too, once I realized that I was getting several problems wrong.

My parents seemed to have changed a lot. I realized that my mom was beginning to go on the computer much more often, and my dad was always whispering to her in a small voice. I was beginning to get slightly suspicious.

That day, I went downstairs into the office and went on my mom’s computer. I pressed ctrl+H to check her history. When I her history, my jaw dropped open.

Tuesday, 4:21: Minecraft. Just twenty minutes ago. This wasn’t right. I closed the page and checked her home screen. Sure enough, Minecraft was downloaded.

I clicked on the icon of the green block of grass. The Minecraft launcher appeared. At the bottom left corner, I saw her username.

NerdyGamr21.

No, this couldn’t be right.

For a few moments, I just sat there, staring at the screen of her computer with a blank look on my face. How could my mom be a moderator? I thought. It occurred to me that my mom knew more than she let on. But that didn’t stop me from being angry at her. In fact, I was furious.

“MOM!” I shouted at the top of my lungs. My mom came running into the office.

“James! Is anything wrong? What are you screaming about? Why are you sitting at my computer, and what are you doing on it?”

She leaned over and glanced at the screen. “What –– oh, James.” Her voice dropped.

“Y-you knew. You knew the whole time that I’ve been playing on the computer, haven’t you? You’ve been watching and humiliating me on the server!”

“James-” my mom began.

“I’ve had enough.”

I stormed up to my room. When I logged on to Minecraft, I realized that there was a new addition to my list of servers. Surprised, I clicked on it.

There was only one other person on the server. NerdyGamr21. Wow, my mom was sure smart.

In chat, I typed, “What are you doing on here?”

A few seconds later, a response appeared. “I’ve come here to talk.”

“About what?”

“You. And your computer. And my job as a moderator.”

I didn’t respond. I sat back in my chair, watching the screen, waiting for my mom to go on.

“I just wanted to bring you closer to us, and your responsibilities at school. I never meant to humiliate you. I just felt that you being with your computer had brought us apart.”

I was about to respond, but it was just then that I realized that I had been spending so much time behind my screen instead of with my family. If I had been out and about more often, I would have realized what my mom was doing earlier on. But no. I had chosen to hide in my room, away from my family, away from my responsibilities at school, with my computer as company.

But this was going to end. I slammed down my computer screen. After years of hiding, I needed to face reality. Not the players in Minecraft. Reality.

I walked down the stairs and into the office. “Mom?”

“Yes?”

She closed the screen of her computer. “Do you want to talk to me?”
“Mom, I…”

My mom sighed. “I know, James. I understand that you find the computer very addicting. That’s the problem with most modern children these days –– they spend so much time behind the screen and don’t know how to spend time with their family. You’re not to blame –– it’s just all this technology. It can be tempting.”

I nodded. “Yeah. Some people text their parents instead of walking 10 feet to go talk to them.”
My mom nodded. “Exactly what I mean. You see, hardly any of these kids nowadays remember that they have parents right next to them. I have to admit, ever since I started playing Minecraft, I’ve really been addicted to this computer.”

“When was that?”

“Oh, just a couple months after you began playing Minecraft. At first, I was curious about what you found so fun about playing Minecraft, and I wanted to try it for myself. So soon, I realized how amazing the game was, and became addicted. When I realized that I was spending too much time on the computer, I decided to take a break. And now I’m back, to bring you back to reality, too.”

I nodded. “Well, I think I’m back. Don’t expect me to give up Minecraft completely, but I guess I have to face reality at some point in time.”

My mom smiled at me. “Well, speaking of reality, I think it’s almost time you take your final math test. Why don’t you go upstairs and study? You will take the test sometime next week. And don’t tell me you’re not ready, because the computer is no longer in your way.”

* * *

For the next few days, I studied hard. I tried to do as well as possible, and even my dad was proud of my progress. “Great work, James,” he told me after I had finished one of his packets with only three mistakes.

But as the test got nearer and nearer, I got super nervous. What if the same thing happened again? Then I wouldn’t be able to advance to eighth grade! I would be left behind with everyone teasing me.

However, despite my nervousness, part of me was still hopeful. I had studied hard, passing shouldn’t be a problem… should it?

When the day finally came, I had pretty much dropped the hopeful part of me. Nervousness dominated. “What if I fail?” I told my mom in frustration.

“Don’t worry. You only need to get a B+ or better to pass,” my mom told me. “You’ve been studying so hard, I don’t think it’ll be a problem at all.”

Easy for you to say, I thought.

My mom told me that I would be taking the test over at the school, so we hopped into the car. During the ride to the school, I fidgeted in my seat, playing with the seat belt. My eyes were glued to the view outside. There was a tense silence inside.

When we finally got to the school, I had calmed down a bit. Ok, I told myself. It’s just a test. I’ve been studying so hard, and I am bound to do well.

I followed my mom into the building, and I was greeted by the vice principal, Mr. Price. “Hey, there,” he greeted us. “I’ll assume you’re Ash. Are you here to retake the test?”

For a moment, I was shocked. Ash had to retake the test too?

Maybe he hadn’t gotten an A after all, I thought. But before I could think of something witty to tell of him, my mom tapped me on the shoulder, bringing me back to my senses.

“Uh-no,” I told Mr. Price. “I mean, I’m here to retake the test, but I’m James Larson. Where do I go?”
The principal led me inside the school and into room 214. “Here. Your mother will remain outside while you take the test.” I looked inside. A dozen other kids were sitting at desks scattered around the room. “We’re just about to start the test. You can go find a seat anywhere.”

I nodded, and chose a seat at the front of the room. Soon, the tests were handed out, and the time started. I grabbed my pencil and began right away. I couldn’t fail again.

* * *

“Okay, time’s up.” Our instructor, Mr. Snyder, came around to collect our tests. “Pencils down. As soon as I collect your test, you may leave the room.”

I dropped my pencil and glanced upwards. Just in time, I thought. I stood up as Mr. Snyder took my paper from me. With a last glance at the retakers, I left the room.

My mom was waiting for me outside. “Well?” she asked. “How did you do?”
“Fine.” I glanced down at the floor. We left the building in silence.

“Well, I’m excited to get your test scores,” my mom told me.

And I’m nervous, I thought.

* * *

A few days later, I found a package in the mail addressed to me. Must be my test scores, I thought. I brought it back inside, afraid of what it might hold.

“Mom?” I called as I enter the house. “The test scores came.”

Footsteps sounded from above. “Coming!” she replied. “What did you get?”

I shrugged nervously. “Who knows?”

For a moment, we both just stared down at the envelope.

“Are you gonna open this?” my mom asked me.
I shrugged. “You do it,” I told her. She ripped it open.

I didn’t dare look at her. I could hear the paper crinkling, and then a faint sigh of relief from my mother. I looked up and my eyes met with the beautiful A- scrawled at the top of my paper.

I couldn’t contain my happiness. I grinned at my mom, and took the paper from her. I went through my test. Only 3 wrong answers in the whole thing! “I knew you could do it, James,” my mom told me as she patted my shoulder. “I knew you could.”

I nodded, placing the test on the nearby table. Well, now that that’s off my mind, I thought, I guess I’ll go play some Minecraft. I began heading upstairs, but stopped midway. I looked down at my mom, who was looking me in the eye.

For a moment, there was silence. We just stared at each other. Then, instead of continuing my way up, I turned around and headed back down towards my mom. She looked at me, surprised.

“Aren’t you going to play some Minecraft?” she asked me.

I shook my head. “Of course not. I have my family with me, and that’s all that matters. I don’t care if I win a game in Minecraft, or if there’s a new update. I’m tired of hiding behind that screen.”

My mom smiled. “Well, I’m glad. So, you wanna go out for a celebration? We’ll go to Veneto’s, your favorite.”

I nodded. “Hey, why not? Let’s go!”

As we piled into the car, I felt a surge of happiness. Though I had enjoyed playing Minecraft for a while, I had finally found something even better –– just spending time with my family. Right there in that car, I promised myself that I would never be so closed off again. I would try to make some friends and spend more time with my family, and avoid that computer screen that blocked everyone out of my life. It was as if the wall separating me from my family had been broken down.

We were united once more.

Epilogue

That was how my brand-new life began. That night, I packed my computer away into my suitcase. It would remain there for a while.

I began to spend more time with my parents instead of hanging out, alone, in my room. We had tons of fun together, and went out for dinner together often. Together, we learned more about each other, which formed an unbreakable bond between us three. At the end of the month, I couldn’t imagine how I had been able to withstand so much time away from them.

But with all the fun I was having, there was no room for regrets. I enjoyed my time, and, as they call it, lived life to the fullest. I had never felt better –– and it would never have happened if I were still hiding behind the screen of my computer. Never once did I feel any pain at all for giving up hacking, because feeling what I felt inside, I knew it was the right decision.

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