Colorado Springs ninth grader Aadi Nashikkar and Forth Collins author Donna Cooner at Colorado Public Radio on Aug. 9, 2017.

(Stephanie Wolf/CPR News)

It's an app that questions whether you're good enough. And the characters in a new young adult novel can't put it down.

"Worthy," by Fort Collins author Donna Cooner, is set in a high school around prom time and looks at how social media permeates the lives of teenagers. In addition to being a novelist, Cooner works with teachers and principals as a professor at the Center for Educator Preparation at Colorado State University.

Aadi Nashikkar just started the ninth grade at the Colorado Springs School and was a finalist in the StoryMakers writing contest from Rocky Mountain PBS. He read "Worthy" and shared his teen perspective with Cooner and Colorado Matters host Ryan Warner.

Read the first chapter of "Worthy":

THE HORNET

Online Forum for Students of Huntsville High School

• You are cordially invited to an ENCHANTED EVENING. Huntsville High School’s JUNIOR-SENIOR PROM will be held on Saturday, April 10. Tickets now on sale in the cafeteria!

• Do you love to write? Are you a Huntsville sophomore or junior? Then you’re eligible to enter the 13th Annual Marty Speer Literary Prize for Young Writers contest, presented by the Thompson Review, one of the country’s most respected literary magazines. If you are the winner or one of the two runners-up, you will see your story published on the Thompson Review’s website. In addition, the winner will receive a full scholarship to the Thompson Review Young Writers Workshop in Austin, Texas, this summer. Go to martyspeerlitprize.com to enter!

• Congratulations, Kat Lee, SHHS Media Center Aide and the March Hornet Award Winner!

• Are you WORTHY? Check out this HOT NEW app just for Huntsville High School students! Everybody’s going to be talking about this tomorrow! Don’t be left out. Free download HERE.

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Chapter One

Shoes can tell you everything about a person. My best friend, Nikki Aquino, says I’m too quick to judge, even though it was a pair of shoes that brought us together in the first place. On the first day of kindergarten, I couldn't
stop staring at Nikki’s pink glittery high-top sneakers. By lunchtime, she’d convinced me to try them on. She’s been convincing me to do things ever since. Today is no exception.

I wait for Nikki by the junior lockers, scrolling through my phone. I open the Hornet, which is our student-run online forum, kind of like a virtual bulletin board where kids can post stuff. The news of the upcoming writing contest makes my stomach jump. My English teacher mentioned that prize yesterday and I’d gotten my hopes up—a
chance to go to Austin! My writing published online! But suddenly, I’m nervous. I don’t know if I should enter or not. The familiar doubts start to bubble up in my mind. Maybe I’m not good enough.

To distract myself, I click on the link at the bottom of the page. Some potentially stupid new app starts downloading to my phone.

I look up. Still no Nikki.

This after-school meeting was not in my plans and, even though it was all her idea, Nikki is nowhere to be found. I’m not tall enough to see over the top of the crowd so I just wait it out, tapping my red Lucchese cowboy boots—an incredible find at Bobbi’s Thrift Shop—against the tiled hallway of Huntsville High School. I lean back against the wall and try not to get swept away by students rushing for the exits.

If I had a superpower, invisibility would definitely be it. Why else would at least ten people bump into me every single day as I walk to and from my classes? When I finally see Nikki waving at me from the end of the hall, I smile in spite of myself.

Unlike me, Nikki walks through the crush of moving bodies with absolute confidence. Nobody jostles her. No one crowds her. In fact, the push of students mystically parts around her and makes way. I don’t know how she does it.

Nikki doesn’t care if people say a girl her size shouldn’t wear leopard-skin tights. That is her superpower. Today those tights are tucked into black leather booties that match her size 2X black leather jacket. Nikki calls herself fat without blinking an eye. I call her spectacular.

Unlike Nikki, I’m just average. I have straight, dirty-blonde hair, fair skin, and brown eyes. I’m average height, average weight. And nobody stands out for being average in high school. But being in the middle, blending in, feels
comfortable to me. It’s like getting into a swimming pool.

I like to walk in slowly from the steps in the shallow end and get used to the water touching my toes, my knees, my waist, my chest. Nikki, of course, always dives in without a moment of hesitation. And sometimes she pulls me in behind her.

Now Nikki stops in front of me, smiling. “You’re still coming with me, right?” she asks. She flips her dark hair over one shoulder and narrows her eyes at me. It’s a look I know all too well.

I frown and then nod, reluctantly. “Yeah, but I can’t stay long. I need to get to work.”

“Mrs. Longshore won’t care if you’re late. Besides, those books are still going to be there no matter when you show up,” Nikki says.

My after-school job at the Huntsville Library only pays minimum wage, but at least it’s something. And one day I’m going to write one of those books on the shelves. Maybe I’ll even come back from wherever famous authors live and put the book up there myself in some kind of big ceremony where everyone claps and asks for my autograph.

It could happen.

But not today, because Nikki is grabbing my arm and pulling me away from the lockers to head to the Junior Prom Planning Committee meeting. Nikki’s been on the committee for a month now and she’s been begging me to join too. I finally gave in.

“It’s our responsibility to help plan the best prom ever,” Nikki told me earlier this morning as we walked into school. “When we’re seniors, someone is going to be doing all this for us, right?”

Nikki knows what appeals to me. I like to plan. Maybe it was because I was such a fearful child that I became a planner. Most of my childhood was spent afraid of the dark, afraid of bugs, afraid of roller coasters that might make me sick, afraid of dancing and looking like an idiot, afraid of almost everything. But I learned something. If I planned out what was going to happen, with little room for surprise, then I wasn’t so afraid.

Proms don’t seem as scary as some other things, but it still never hurts to plan.

The one thing I’m not planning on is having a date. With no prospects in sight and prom only a few weeks away, I just can’t imagine it happening.

I squint down the corridor and sigh. “Okay. Let’s get this over with.”

“Come on. The meeting is in Mr. Landmann’s room,” Nikki says, continuing to yank me down the hall toward the history wing.

We make it to the door, but just before we can go inside, Jake Edwards comes up behind Nikki and puts his arms
around her, pulling her to his chest. She looks up at him and my heart drops a notch. Not because I’m jealous, but
because I’m worried.

This is not a good idea, Nikki.

Nikki and Jake just started dating about a month ago. I look at them standing side by side. Nikki is a gorgeous,
plus-sized Filipina girl with brown skin and thick black hair. Jake looks like a big, blond, blue-eyed Norwegian god
or something. They make a striking couple. But Jake is also a star football player and the senior class favorite to be prom king. And he’s popular. Much more popular than Nikki.

It makes me nervous.

“Hey, beautiful,” he says, kissing Nikki on the forehead and smiling down at her. She smiles back up at him.

He’s going to break your heart, Nikki.

“Where are you two going?” Jake asks both of us, but he only looks at Nikki.

I clear my throat. “We have a meeting.”

“But I’ll see you later?” Jake asks, and Nikki nods, laughing and leaning into his broad chest. She smiles the smile that causes her eyes to crinkle up at the corners and makes her even more beautiful. Sometimes it’s hard to be her best friend. She’s the sun and I’m Pluto.

I avert my eyes and pull my phone out of my pocket, not wanting to be some kind of third-wheel dork. I see that the new app has finished loading. It’s called Worthy, and the icon has a little question mark inside a heart. Weird.

I glance up to see Nikki and Jake kissing. I don’t even try to hide my eye roll. I might only be five foot four inches tall, from the top of my messy blonde bun to the tips of my Lucchese boots, but I can throw some shade with the
best of them.

“Let’s go,” I say to Nikki. “We’ll be late.”

“Bye, Linden,” Jake tells me flatly. He knows I don’t like him.

Pulling herself away from Jake with one last giggle, Nikki looks back at him over her shoulder, even as she is walking away. He says something I can’t hear and she laughs. She has such a great laugh. If he can make her laugh like that, it makes me hope I’m wrong about Jake.

Nikki pulls open the classroom door and pushes me inside. Mr. Landmann glances up from a King Lear playbill and cheerfully waves us in. He’s the history teacher and the faculty advisor for all things prom, but he’s also active in the Huntsville Community Theater. Sometimes his worlds collide. This afternoon, his classroom is filled with more props than students. I look down the rows of desks surrounded by painted cardboard thrones, draped velvet curtains, and life-sized cutouts of various historical figures. All the world’s a stage, I think. And I’m just a player. Especially in prom meetings.

Heather Middleton stands at the front of the room in her knockoff Uggs, trying to get everyone’s attention with her perky, high-pitched voice.

“Hey, guys? Everyone?”

No one pays her any attention. Heather is that kid who sits in the front row of every AP class, waving her hand and asking the teacher about extra homework. No one wants to depend on Heather to plan the most glamorous night of our lives, but she always volunteers first.

Jayla Williams, a tall, pretty, African-American girl, sits in the front row. Jayla’s captain of our school volleyball team. Today she’s painting the fingernails on her right hand bright green, Huntsville High School color, and blowing on her other hand to help it dry faster. She looks up at me and Nikki and waves the finished hand at us in perfect Texas beauty queen style. Jayla is popular. She’s one of the Lovelies, as Nikki and I call all the girls in the highest echelon of the popular crowd. She likes Nikki, so by extension she likes me too, I guess.

Nikki and I wave back to Jayla, and then we continue down the aisle to two empty desks. We sit down next to a cardboard cutout of the Santa Maria. I twist around to observe the other kids in the room. My writing brain suddenly kicks in—noticing things other people don’t. It is hard to turn off.

Max Rossi, junior class president, sits behind Jayla wearing a baseball cap that reads “Real Men Hunt Turkeys”
across the front. I can tell by his grin that he is obviously enjoying being the only guy in the room. Max lives across
the street from me and we’ve known each other since we were kids. I also know something about him most people
don’t. He is highly allergic to strawberries and can’t even touch one without breaking out in a painful red rash. I was not above using this special knowledge when we were five and he kept chasing me around the front yard, dangling
a giant tree roach in my face. Texas roaches are huge and, if that isn’t bad enough, they fly toward you instead of running away from you. I’m terrified of them. So I came up with a plan to deal with Max if it ever happened again. And when it did, I held a baggie full of strawberries over his head until he finally swore never to roach-chase me again.

By the way, I love strawberries. They are like tiny, delicious superheroes.

Max nods toward me when he sees me looking at him, and I quickly glance down at the top of the desk. I still can’t believe Max Rossi ended up with the Lovelies. Some things just can’t be explained.

The door flies open and Taylor Reed strolls in, carrying a blue-striped Kate Spade bag on one arm. Taylor is the younger sister of last year’s prom queen and is definitely one of the Lovelies. She’s tall and blonde, with skin the color of those powdered sugar mini-doughnuts. Okay, maybe not that white, but close.

Strawberries? Doughnuts? Great. Now I’m hungry.

I lean across the aisle and ask Nikki, “Do you have a snack?”

She wrinkles up her nose and looks at me like I’m crazy. “A snack? Are we in kindergarten?”

“Sorry,” I mutter. I press my hands against my stomach, willing it not to growl.

“Oh. My. God. I’m so late,” Taylor announces to the room, then waits a few seconds for a response from the
audience, like a great comic waits for the laugh. And, as usual, any empty space surrounding Taylor Reed is filled
up seamlessly by her adoring fans.

“But we’re so glad you made it,” Heather says. She stretches out the word so several beats for an extra emphasis that goes way beyond her strong Texas accent.

Taylor ignores Heather, making her way down the center aisle. She slides into the empty desk in front of me, then leans over to talk to Jayla and Max.

“Can you believe it? I’m late because I had to go to detention because of all my tardies. Kind of ironic, right?” she drawls.

“Yeah. Crazy,” Jayla says, but in a bored tone that tells everyone she couldn’t care less if Taylor showed up or not. The rumor is Jayla is going to be Taylor’s biggest competition for this year’s junior prom queen. Since Taylor is obnoxious, and has at least a couple hundred more followers on social media than any other kid at Huntsville High School, I kind of hope the rumor is right. I always root for the underdog.

Not that Jayla doesn’t have her own fans. I follow both her and Taylor on Instagram and Twitter. Jayla is really funny and witty on Twitter. I wish I could be. I sort of lurk on social media a lot, but don’t really post my own stuff. As a future famous author, I should probably be able to write something interesting in 140 characters or less.

Taylor glances over at us and says, “Hey, Nikki.” I don’t think she quite remembers my name. In fact, she shoots me a disdainful look and then turns back around, leaving only a swinging ponytail on my desk.

My fingers stretch out to touch the expensively streaked strands. I wonder if my hair could ever look that good. Nikki catches my eye and gives me a slight shake of her head. So I curl my chipped nails back into fists to help resist the temptation. It’s probably a good thing, because I don’t need Taylor Reed on my bad side. No one does.

Our high school, like most others, I suppose, has its groups. There’s the jock crowd; the theater kids; the cowboys, surfers, and skaters; the smart kids; the Lovelies (and the boys who come and go around them); and then a leftover assortment of the rest. I am a leftover. Nikki, though, manages to exist among many groups, dipping in and out of the popular kids with ease.

Taylor reaches back and pulls her hair over her shoulder and out of my reach. It was probably getting dirty just by being on my desk.

I look toward Heather at the front of the room, hoping this meeting is going to get started on time. Now she’s writing something on the board about the color scheme. Taylor, who has no concept of anyone else being the center of attention, talks and talks and talks to Jayla and Max. She’s saying how she wants to go to the prom with the one person who really matters—her boyfriend, Liam Richardson. She wants it to be one of those nights that when she’s thirty and someone asks her, “Who did you go to your prom with?” she’s going to remember it perfectly. Because that’s exactly what it will be. Perfect. The problem is, he hasn’t actually asked her. Yet.

“I wish he would just ask me,” she whines.

“I don’t think you have to wait on some guy to ask you,” Max drawls. “Just go.”

“Without a date?” Taylor looks at him like he just grew three heads.

“With a date. Without a date. With a bunch of people. Who cares? It’s one night.”

I want to agree with Max. I do agree with Max. But I can’t help but think that it would be nice to go to prom with someone special. I may not have a boyfriend, but I can imagine what it would be like—swept into a room filled with twinkling lights and chiffon dresses. Dancing. Flirting. Smiling. Kissing. It’s a story just waiting to be written.

“Going with a group is out of the question,” Taylor snaps. “I don’t want to be part of a crowd at the most important event of my high school life.” She shudders, then looks at Nikki. “Right?”

Nikki has been busy texting Jake, but she glances up and nods. “Yeah. Prom should be all about romance.”

Jake hasn’t asked Nikki to prom yet, but I know she’s waiting.

I sigh.

Max leans over toward Jayla. “I like your nails,” he says.

Jayla scoots her desk away, laughing. She has this great laugh that is way louder and bigger than anyone expects. Max scoots his desk closer to her.

“Don’t touch them. You’ll mess them up.” She slaps his hand playfully, then turns away from him.

I wonder if all this flirting is leading somewhere. Maybe Max is rethinking his opinion on prom dates. But he’s got to know Jayla is way out of his league. The rumor is she already has a date to prom with a senior basketball player named Derek Russell, who is six inches taller than Max.

Heather is trying to get everyone’s attention again. “Hello? We need to get started.”

No one even looks her way, and I feel a little sorry for her. Heather has this nervous thing she does where she blinks really fast. No one is sure if she is going to cry or if she has something in her eye or what, but lately Taylor
and her friends have started doing it back to her and that just makes it worse.

“Can I have your attention?” Heather’s voice gets louder and her right eye starts to twitch. If Taylor ever looks up from her phone, she’s bound to notice. Mr. Landmann looks up from his reading and peers at Heather over his
glasses, but he doesn’t interrupt. Supervising after-school activities is all about empowering the student voice. Unless a fight breaks out or someone ugly-cries, he’s not going to intervene.

Max decides to step up, more for the attention than out of kindness. “I think Heather needs everyone to listen.”

The conversations stop, and all eyes turn toward Heather.

“Girls,” she announces, then pauses and looks at Max, her right eye blinking rapidly. “And boy.”

Max smiles at her and leans back in the desk like he is the boss of the world. A couple of girls give an obligatory giggle, and I know that only encourages him. Not surprisingly, Heather is one of the gigglers. I do a mental eye roll.

“Time to get down to business,” Heather continues. “This year’s junior-senior prom is going to be the best Huntsville High School has ever experienced, and it’s all because of you.”

She pauses like she expects applause, but there is no response. “Okay, this won’t take long. Let’s hear from our committee chairs. Facilities?”

Jayla speaks up. “Everything is set. We have security and the custodial staff scheduled for the whole night.”

We all know the “staff” is really just one person. Mr. Thomas is the school custodian who occasionally puts on a name tag that reads “Security” for special events.

Heather nods. “Music?”

“I booked a local band called The Barneys,” Max says. “They play a mix of stuff. I think it’ll make everyone
happy.”

The classroom gives enthusiastic oohs and aahs. I’ve heard of The Barneys. I’m impressed. Heather continues with
the roll call, and the responses pop up all over the room.

“Caterers?”

“Check."

“Photographer?”

“Check.”

“Videographer?”

“Check.”

“Decorations?”

There is a pause.

“Decorations? Nikki, wasn’t that you?”

“Yes, but I need a clarification. Are we going to have a theme or not?” Nikki asks.

“I thought it was Enchanted Evening?” I ask, trying to help Nikki out and get this meeting moving along. I’m worried I’m going to be late to the library.

Taylor turns around to stare at me. Behind Taylor’s shoulder, I see Heather take a few breaths to calm herself down. Her eyelids are still fluttering like some kind of ceiling fan, but their pace is slowing. Taylor narrows her ice-blue eyes at me.

“We don’t want the same old thing,” Heather explains. “It has to be unique.”

Taylor nods enthusiastically. “Exactly. Even if the theme is familiar, you have to do something new with it."

“So Enchanted Evening or not?” Nikki asks.

“Yes,” Heather says, “but edgy.”

I’m not sure how edgy an enchanted evening can be, but Nikki nods like she totally gets it.

“So the color scheme?” Heather prompts. “Purple and black?”

“I vote for silver and gold,” Nikki says. “The more sparkle, the better.”

Heather looks around for confirmation, but no one seems to feel passionately about it one way or another.

Taylor finally says, “Okay with me. Glitter is my favorite
color.”

“So we have a theme and a color scheme. Decorations are able to move full speed ahead,” Heather announces proudly. “Now, we just need someone to be in charge of social media. I’ve posted a few things on the Hornet, but
we need way more than that.” She glances around the room. “I’m looking for someone to spice things up and
get some real buzz going.”

Everyone looks at Torrey Grey, who is sitting three rows up and has been quiet the whole meeting. Torrey used to have a super-popular fashion vlog before she moved to our school last fall. She was kind of famous.

“Sorry, guys. Can’t do it.” Torrey holds up her hands. “I’m taking a break from social media.”

No one else speaks up.

Nikki leans over and says to me, “I think you should do it.”

Startled, I look up at her and shake my head no.

Absolutely not. No way. No how.

“You want to be a writer and this is writing stuff,” Nikki whispers. “Online.”

“That’s not my kind of writing,” I say. But then, in spite of myself, I start to think about it. I do have some ideas. I could post some videos of kids talking about prom. Maybe some Q&As. I could link to some prom fashion YouTube
videos. My weird need to plan kicks in with a major jolt.

Maybe a little social media buzz might be good for me, too. Maybe I don’t need to always be in Nikki’s shadow.

When I was a kid, I took a pottery class. We made vases and bowls out of wet, heavy clay, then put them in a giant
oven to harden. When they came out, I didn’t want anyone to see my creation—a lopsided coffee cup with a wonky handle. It wasn’t that I was scared of people making fun of it. Everyone’s was a little off. But it was because it wasn’t
good enough and there was nothing I could do to make it better. It was done. Hard. Finished. When I brought it home, I threw it into the trash can and it shattered into pieces. High school may not be a piece of pottery, but it
isn’t finished yet. I still have a chance to make it better.

“I nominate Linden Wilson,” Nikki says loudly.

This gets even Taylor’s attention. She stares at Nikki, phone in hand, likes she’s just waking up from a power nap. “You’re kidding, right? Prom is the high school version of New York Fashion Week. It’s a lot of pressure. We can’t
have just anyone in charge of publicity.”

Gee, thanks, Taylor.

“Linden’s going to be a famous writer one day. She’ll be great at managing all the social media posts,” Nikki says in
her nobody’s-going-to-argue-with-me voice.

Jayla speaks up, with the commanding voice that has served her well as volleyball team captain three years running. “I second the nomination for Linden Wilson to be our publicity chair.”

I figure she’s supporting me just to annoy Taylor, but I’ll take it. Taylor looks back down at her phone and frowns, tapping away. “I don’t even think I follow her on Instagram.”

“I am on there,” I say, a little sharply.

“Anyone opposed to Linden Wilson becoming our prom publicity chair?” Heather asks. I hold my breath, but no
one says anything. Heather walks to the board, picks up a marker, and writes my name in block letters under the
title of publicity director. I like the way it looks. So official. Maybe sharing my words with the public will be good practice for me, if I do want to become a real author one day. And maybe writing about the prom will inspire me.

I glance over to catch Nikki grinning at me because she was right and eventually I’m going to have to admit it. Coming to this meeting was a good idea.

“I accept the nomination,” I say. Then I glance down at my phone. A pop-up message on Instagram informs me that Taylor Reed and Jayla Williams just followed me.

Welcome, new readers, I think. And I smile down at my cowboy boots.

From WORTHY by Donna Cooner. © 2017 by Donna Cooner. Reprinted by permission of Point, an imprint of Scholastic Inc. All rights reserved.

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