If you're a living, breathing human being (or at the very least, an American) then you can finish that phrase easily enough: "....don't say anything at all."
Am I right? Of course. It's axiomatic. Every authority figure you've ever run across will hit you with this witty little ditty at one point or another. On that side note, if you live long enough you will become SOMEONE'S authority figure. Just sayin'.
I'm torn on this one. I am a Southern man who was brought up to be a Southern gentleman (it's not that shocking, assholes). I truly do abhor rudeness and confrontation, so on the one hand I'd like to see people be nice and non-controversial.....at least when dealing with me. And (in return) I try to be cool about shit. I really do see the need for it.
I had a teacher in my freshman year at Hanahan by the name of Mrs. Morris. She was a revelation and by far my favorite teacher ever. She was a Druid in her religious preferences and unapologetic in her approach, which explains why she lasted such a short time in a whitebread school like that one. She taught English (my favorite) and Creative Writing (also a favorite). She also took no shit; I mean NEGATIVE shit. She called you on your bullshit and forced you to be real and honest. She considered it a requirement of good writing and good citizenship. She had quotes posted all over her classroom: "Life's a journey, not a destination", "The man who tries and fails will always rise above the coward who does not try", "A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step", "We lie best when we lie to ourselves". You get the idea. However, she had one next to her desk that resonated with me on a very deep level:
"If you haven't got anything nice to say............SAY IT ANYWAYS (but do so respectfully)"
Wow. Fucking wow. The first time I read it I almost didn't read it fully because my mind filled in the obvious blank. Go figure. I think I was in a daze for the rest of that class. Mrs. Morris pulled me aside after class was over and asked me why I kept staring at that and zoning out. I told her that I found it very poignant, ridiculously so. She smiled, nodded and took a minute to think about her response. Then she said something that shocked me in its directness.
"You're not very popular, are you, Stuart?" she asked gently, but firmly.
I laughed. It came out naturally. "What gave it away?" I asked with sarcasm dripping into a puddle at my feet.
"I'm good at picking up on these things", she said, "but I know another outsider when I see one. Write me an essay about it. You'll read it in class tomorrow."
I froze. I did not, under any circumstances, read "oral reports" in front of the class. I would write an A+ paper and then take the 50% for not presenting. Stage fright doesn't even begin to describe it. This proven method went all the way back to my report on the Battle of Dunkirk in Mrs. Lynch's 6th grade World History class. I just..........couldn't............do it.
She eyed me sharply and said the presentation was a requirement, but here's the caveat: YOU CAN SAY ANYTHING YOU WANT. Anything, she said. Use your words as a weapon, she told me. She said she picked up on the vibe straightaway in this particular class (Gifted and Talented or Advanced English....I think they call it GATE in Texas). She said the class was full of privileged and snotty (but intelligent) kids and she wanted to see them eat some truth. I told her I would find the courage.
The picture had already started to form in my mind, you see. Those Columbine kids? I understand. I'd never do anything like that (I'm crazy, not evil), but I totally get the impulse. You want to fire back. You want to hurt. And yes..........sometimes you want to kill. Let me give you a little backstory.
I came to the Hanahan Public School System in the 2nd grade. I was the new kid. I was "poor", especially by their definition. My clothes came from K-Mart and my school supplies were 2nd rate. I lived on the "other side of the tracks". I was a Clemson Tiger (upstate kid) in a land of Gamecocks (Lowcountry brats). And Hanahan? Oh, what a fucking place that was in the days before bullying wasn't chic.
I was picked on mercilessly. From 2nd to 6th grade I was the butt of many, many jokes. If I went to the bathroom during class I'd come back to find my stuff missing. I'd get my neck popped with rubber bands. Permanent marker on the forearm. Pushed into corners. Called trash, poor, inbred. Oh yeah, it was great. There were some really well raised kids in my alma mater. Then I did something that was to be expected: I fought back. Physically. I did this often and with great fervor. Look at me wrong? Get knocked out. Talk about my Mom? I'll kill you. Touch my stuff? I'd stomp your nuts until your family tree withered and died. My 6th-8th grade discipline record is still the stuff of legend. I'm still not allowed at Hanahan. I got physical with my 8th grade Science teacher. I smoked IN CLASS. I cussed out teachers and principals alike.
I got off on it. I had created another persona for myself, and (as a result) no one fucked with me anymore at all. Through it all I maintained straight A's for the most part (I failed 8th grade Science, sorry Mr. Tolbert). And still..........and still...........
I couldn't publicly face them with words. I just couldn't do it. At least, I couldn't do it until Mrs. Morris challenged me to step up and injected me with some needed courage. So, I went home and I wrote furiously. I revised. I did several drafts. I went through 2 packs of Marlboros in about 3 hours.
I do not remember the word-for-word of the best piece of writing that I have ever done. It was vitriolic but utterly from the heart. It was foul in language (this is me we're talking about, motherfuckers!) but not obscene. I do remember the opening and another piece in the middle. Allow me to indulge you. It opened thus:
"I am a killer. I killed someone last night, not with my bare hands but with my heart (which is where all good killing comes from). I have killed the son of a bitch who gave a slimy rat fuck what any of you think."
Not bad as openings go, right? Oh, the looks on their faces when I said I killed someone last night. Priceless. A few of them really wanted to get under their desks. And the shock? Literal gasps. Mrs. Morris smiled and nodded for me to go on.
I continued and told them that, on real reflection, I couldn't understand why I cared what any of them thought. I told them I was a fool for ever caring. I told them they were shallow, judgmental children. Another particular: "None of you know real suffering. My Dad split, and that is HIS fault. My Mom is a mess, and that is NOT her fault. We scratch and claw just to keep my brother and I clothed and fed and you're worried what kind of car Mommy and Daddy will get you. It's fucking pathetic."
I vented some more and thanked Mrs. Morris for giving me the forum to speak my mind and the courage to do it. And those words echo so true today. I wish Mrs. Morris could know how profound of an impact she had on me as a person. There's a legit tear rolling down my cheek as I type this. I hope my freshman year angel is still helping other rejects and heathens.
I sat down to a silent and stunned room. I took out a book (Danse Macabre, by Stephen King) and began to read. Mrs. Morris told the class just to take the rest of the time to "free write". For the next forty minutes the class was totally silent except for the sound of working pencils. The bell rang. I closed my book and put it in my second rate backpack. When I looked back up do you know what I was faced with?
A line. A line of people standing at my desk. These were kids I had gone to school with for the last 7 years, all of whom had either ridiculed me or ignored me (at the very least). They were holding papers, all of which were written without instruction on topic. As they passed by my desk some said "Sorry". Some said nothing at all. Many wouldn't look me in the eye. The one who did was the one I counted as a friend, a hell of a human being by the name of Mike Acree. Mike was poor (so to speak), like me. He shook my hand and told me that was "the coolest fucking thing I've ever seen".
I managed to get off school grounds before I lost it and broke down. I cried like a baby as I read approximately 30 letters of apology. They were heartfelt, I could tell that much in reading them. Not in one day of my life, save my wedding and the birth of my daughter, have I been changed so much in one clawing stroke.
So, when someone says "If you don't have anything nice to say then don't say anything at all" I say fuck that shit. Go with this one instead:
"If you haven't got anything nice to say, then tell the truth and shame the devil."
THANK YOU, MRS. MORRIS!! YOU WERE THE BEST TEACHER I EVER HAD!!"