An Open Letter to My Shame

An Open Letter to My Shame

©2016 James Steinberg c/o

It has been two years since we graduated from Wellesley. I can remember it now, standing there in my cheap (yet so expensive) black gown, you with your arm around my shoulder and phantom fingers digging in hard as you whispered doubts in my ear. Look at them, you whispered, you’re not really one of them.

I stood there, my neck draped with stoles that screamed “I belonged!” and tried to stuff you deep down inside and put on a smile.

I smiled as people asked me what I was doing after graduation. You laughed bitterly in the back of my throat. Finding myself, I said. Taking some time to figure out what I want to do. Translation: I had failed, and unemployment was forcing me back home to my childhood bed, and all I was going to find was the CD I lost under the sofa six years ago.

“Women who will do nothing” was never on any of the banners.

I smiled as my classmates smiled at me and talked about their new jobs and their new graduate schools and their new paths in life, and you wrapped your fingers around my lungs and squeezed, leaving me only enough air to keep smiling. Just keep smiling.

And then we graduated, you and I, and I was home, and so were you, my shame. You slept in my too-small room and took up all the space in my bed and in my head.

You climbed on my back and wrapped your arms around my neck and pushed me to my knees. You whispered in my ear that I was a dark spot in a sea of brilliant stars, the one who hadn’t lived up to her potential. And even as you did, you told me to stand up, because what kind of Wellesley grad would let herself be beaten down like this? Stand up. Smile.

I was up every morning with the sun, bound for class or work or to study, and in the midst of my frantic efforts I watched my fellow alums accomplish amazing things. I drowned every night in an ocean of “what ifs?” and tried to ignore the salt water on my face that had never seen the sea. You barked at me to try harder.

Every moment since graduation, you have dogged my steps, my shame, nipping at my heels. I fought my way through a year and a half of mechanical engineering, but you asked what kind of Wellesley grad was I, to have to go back to school because I couldn’t cut it in my original fields. Not person enough to be an anthropologist, unable to plant my roots as a biologist, I tried to bury my head in numbers and pretend the sand under my feet was steel.

I worked the hours I wasn’t studying, grabbed at children’s flickering smiles like fireflies in the dark, and tried to convince myself I was making a difference. I kept standing on tired soles, swaying with exhaustion, without a day off for months at a time, and kept smiling. I stopped calling myself a Wellesley alum because I’d started to believe you, my shame, started to believe that I didn’t deserve the title.

Work harder, maybe then you’ll prove yourself worthy of the name, you purred.

But here’s the thing, my shame. My darling, dearest shame, my oldest friend.

You’re wrong.

I already earned that name, fair and square. It’s mine. I am a Wellesley alum, and therefore what I do is what Wellesley alums do. And no, I’m not following a traditional path—part student, part teacher, part actor, part lost soul. Ask me what I’m doing right now, and the answer is “I have no idea.” So everyone else looks as though they know what they’re doing with their lives, so what? They’re all probably just better at faking it than I am. Yes, my life is shaping up to be a chaotic riot of tangles and meandering paths, and a fair few ugly snarls, but it’s my life, and no one else’s. Not theirs, and definitely not yours, my shame.

And I know in a few days, a few hours, you’ll be back, creeping in again. I’m going to have to fight this battle again and again. But you can’t take anything away that I don’t choose to give you, and today I choose to be selfish. I choose to be myself, for myself.

I don’t know where I’m going, but I do know I don’t have room for you, my shame.

I am a Wellesley woman, and I am the captain again. Get off my ship.

Dania Wright ’14 is currently working in science communication and museum education, and occasionally explodes things in public. After graduating from Wellesley, she enrolled at the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering at Arizona State.

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