You rejected me last year.
I knew it would happen. I was at my state science fair when I got the email. My stomach sunk immediately, faster than an anchor dropped at sea. I knew, looking at it, that I’d been rejected. Don’t ask me how I know—my stomach just senses bad things, my body tries to brace me for the pain it knows is coming. My mom didn’t believe me, though, and she urged me to open it. Against my better judgment, I did, and knew instantly that I’d been correct. You don’t have to read much when it comes to rejection letters—just the first word, really. If it doesn’t congratulate you, you’re not in.
I don’t think you know just how badly that fractured me. It was all I could think about for the next three months. Even longer, really. I’d avoid any mention of your school’s name. “Brown,” they’d say, and I’d shy away. Whenever I read about another student somewhere in the country, even in my state, who’d been accepted, I’d beat myself up, punish myself for not doing better, for not being better. Television and books exacerbated the wound, because it appears as if authors and directors really like for their college-bound characters to attend a prestigious university like yours. My failure, in many ways, was inescapable.
I did truly want to attend your school. It wasn’t just for the prestige. What you put into college, no matter the college, is what you get out of it. I knew that, so the reason I applied to your school wasn’t because it consistently made the top ten in lists. I’d researched your school, swallowed every morsel of information I could sink my teeth into. I flew through the interview, devoured blogs detailing daily life. It fit, you know? I loved the campus. Loved the academics. Loved the programs. Loved the people. I mistakenly believed that that would be good enough. When it wasn’t, I didn’t know what to do. I made a crucial error: I overlooked the positives in my life to focus on the negatives. I forgot that I’d been accepted into eleven other great colleges and tore myself apart for the few that did reject me. Including you.
The power you held over me still stuns me to this day. The extent to which I loathed myself for my failure astounds me. I punished myself, and for what? I wasn’t good enough, yeah. So what? Who cares? I was good enough for other colleges. I didn’t have to be good enough for yours—but somehow I’d tied my self-worth to your decision, you who do not know me, and when you cut the cord, I fell hard. I got rejected, yes. Thousands get rejected every day, and for things much more important than a top university. Some get rejected from jobs that are necessary to keep a roof over one’s head. Some get rejected from aid that is the only thing that can save one’s life. I’m well aware that pain isn’t a competition nor is it comparable. Just because someone’s going through something worse doesn’t diminish what I’m going through, doesn’t make my pain go away. I know this. But it’s good to put your woes into perspective sometimes.
I don’t even think I could’ve afforded your college had I been accepted. I’m middle class, you know, stuck in that awkward space where financial aid teams think you can afford their college when you really can’t. So even had I been accepted, I likely wouldn’t have been able to attend. But heck, I can barely afford the college I attend now, a college I have grown to adore.
I enjoy my time at Oxford College, even if it took me a year to get here. That’s the thing, see, the thing I always knew would happen. First day of high school, we’re in PE, I’m surrounded by thirty strangers, and our teacher asks us to do a portrait of various things—what means most to us in a relationship, our favorite thing to do, what we’re good at, what we wish we were good at. You get the picture. For the very first prompt, that relationship one, I drew—very messily—the image of a dog. For loyalty. It doesn’t matter what relationship I’m in, a relationship with an idea or a campus, I’m in it for the long haul. I don’t give up. I’ve never given up on a relationship, because life is relationships. That’s all it ever is. To people, to animals, to the environment, to jobs, to yourself. Life is relationships and I intend to be loyal to every part of it.
I was always told to be honest in college applications, but I was never fully honest in this way and I like that I’m doing this because finally I have the chance to be truthful with zero repercussions. It’s not like I lied my senior year—I told the truth, yes, but it was wrapped up in a pretty little package and shoved under a nicely decorated tree and it wasn’t all I wanted to say. I’m not a big believer in punishing people for “lying by omission”—I could get into a whole debate on whether omitting a fact even constitutes as lying if you’re not in a position of power—but I dunno, I’m tired of being stifled all the time and this year’s the year I can finally fly free.
There’s always something that needs to be done, something that needs to be said. Every word I write is confined within the limits of an assignment or society’s expectations. I always have to think about who might be reading what I write in the fear that I might inadvertently reveal something I never wanted to. I’m a private person. I don’t like people knowing things about me; I see it as sharing weakness. It’s like handing people bullets for the gun everyone keeps nearby to hurt others, bullets forged especially to pierce my armor. But you, reading this, it doesn’t matter. You don’t know me. You can’t know me. So I can hand you the bullets, but you wouldn’t know where to aim. I’m safe.
I’m safe from you, at least. Not from the world. Sometimes life is so heavy. It is gravity and it is anchors, and it drags me down so, so low. Sometimes it’s too much effort to breathe, and it’s a good thing the heart beats automatically, or I’m sure it’d feel like too much work to keep it pumping as well. I take shallow breaths sometimes, breathing through my nose so I don’t disturb anyone else, but then sharp pins pierce my lungs and I have to take deep, shuddering breaths and it feels like those stupid competitions we used to hold as children in the pool, the ones where we see who can hold their breath the longest. I emerge from the water and I take huge gasping breaths, but I have to muffle it so no one knows I was holding the air in my body to begin with because I don’t like feeling like I’m taking up too much space just by existing. They’d be worried, I think. They’d ask me why I hide the life inside me and don’t let it free. I can’t tell them that I don’t know. That’d only worry them more.
I can’t tell them about these thoughts that run through my body as if on conveyor belts, can’t tell them how I sleep to escape, can’t tell them how sometimes my body shuts down and I can’t find the switch to let it rumble back to life. If I tell them it all means I can’t handle it, you know?
And I can’t some days, not really.
On those days I’m so utterly tired. I’m exhausted. On those days I’m tired of life and tired of thinking and tired of being me. Most of all, I’m tired of being tired. Those days I don’t know what to do. I flounder in the deep end with no knowledge of how to swim and the only lifeguards are those preoccupied with trying to save themselves, facing the brutal onslaught of waves. I’m my own lifeguard, but I’m not licensed and I can’t save myself. The sharks gather, they smell fresh blood. And who knows? Maybe it’s because I cut myself.
The stress of it all piles up like dirt beside a newly dug grave. In that hole I scrabble to get out. I call for help but no sound comes—because I’m too scared. What if the sharp, stinging slap of rejection results? What if the only answer is silence, or worse, scorn? I can’t stand pity and I don’t like worry. I can’t call out because despite the pain I go through by my inaction, it’s the immediate pain I attempt to shield myself from, the pain of loathing, of loneliness, of rebuff. I have shielded myself from others’ hatred for most of my life, avoiding others and reading to escape, so each new blow wrought by my peers stings just as much, if not worse, than the last.
The grave I stand in grows deeper by the minute, and I recognize it is through my own folly that I sink more and more into the mud. I know it is by my own choice that no rope will come flying down to save me. Eventually it will be too late and the mud will become a vice and I will be stuck with no one who can save me, even if they might want to. No one who can save me, not even myself. And what’s worse is that no one will know about the hole unless I cry out—no one will know, because they cannot see it. They do not see the soil stacking higher and higher. They do not see me sinking lower and lower—it is hidden. Within the walls of bone and fluid, it is hidden, unable to be viewed unless I give my permission, and to give my permission, I must divulge through words.
And I’ve always been bad at speaking to others. I know what I want to say. It’s good in my head—it sounds just like I want it to. I see it play out, there’s a script I’ve written, but I know it will not occur as I see it, like I wish it to. But that’s okay. Sometimes it’s nice to see where the conversation or situation will go—people surprise you like that. So I resolve to say something, I prepare it over in my mind. Then I face the person, and they smile, what did you need? and the words travel up my throat and as if hitting some boulder in the path to my tongue, they ricochet back down my esophagus and to avoid choking I must swallow them.
Sometimes I can taste the words as they touch my tongue. They taste like promise and hope, like the words I am supposed to say—sweet like chocolate, tangy like oranges. Yet when they exit my mouth, the words taste like ash and dust—prickly like thorns, thick like mucus. Worse, they look like failure, they smell like regret, they feel like broken dreams. Because what I wanted to say and what I said diverged in that crook in the street, and the smooth, confident road I took was an illusion, breaking down into a road run through with potholes and cracks; and they say that’s the road you want to take but they’re wrong because taking a road that’s damaged is only liable to lead to a crash.
In a world where words were your only cloak, your only dagger; in an existence when words were your only carrot, your only stick—to have you fail them is worse than failing yourself. You owe them. They dug you out when you dug yourself in, convincing yourself it was the best way, that to deprive yourself of oxygen and family and friends and nature was the best way to go about it; they stopped you, they convinced you otherwise. They were the rope you didn’t need to call for, corded together with strength and courage and perseverance and just one more day. An unbreakable steel rope, strung with the strongest words imaginable, and it was enough to carry you and your burden out of that ever-present pothole in the middle of the street—the street you damaged, the hole you dug.
They wrapped your shivering body in a blanket threaded with comfort and love and friendship and hope. They pushed you up with a walking stick waxed with help and power and valor and trust. Your world was made of them; everything you saw was built from words. A person’s skin was tattooed with all the words that they uttered, all the words that described them. A tree’s bark was made up of knotted words; an ocean’s wave spilled words at your feet. They waltzed in your brain like dancers in a ballet, they flowed from your hands like a stream from a forest. But when they reached your mouth—they shattered. You broke them.
It’s a hard thing to come to terms with, really, if you’re that dependent on them. They made up everything in your world…including the ground you stood upon. But words are fragile—that’s how you can break them so easily. So you’re standing on a sheet of glass above a great, gaping black pit of all the feelings the words tried to keep you from—sorrow, anguish, stress, anxiety, hatred, depression. You cracked the very loft holding you up, and so you fell into the world, again, of fluid and bone.
There I stood, there I sunk. The ocean waves were made now of anger and despair, and they wet the on which I knelt, drenching me, causing me to shiver, allowing me to sink further. The rope formed handcuffs, formed a noose, that tightened further and further the deeper I sank. The trees formed branches so thick it blocked the sun and the moon and stars. I could see the ground I used to stand upon above me—the broken shards of words still fell like savage rain and pierced my skin, and the blood ran into the water surrounding me, causing the sharks to circle. In that place, there were no words.
Those were the bad days, the dark days. Those were the days I struggled through in high school, the days I hide from the world. I won’t lie and say I’m no longer in that hole. I’m still there. Still drowning in earth. I feel like dirt more often than not, but that’s okay. If I’m dirt, I’ll cultivate a forest. Sometimes it’s not too bad to be at the bottom, to be made of mud and grass. I have a clear view of the sky, and those things that surround me are full of life—are the harbingers of life—so feeling like dirt isn’t as bad as it may seem because dirt is life. Dirt also houses death, I suppose, but even death can enable life. I’m trying to be okay with that low feeling, you know, and slowly I’m climbing out of this hole I’m in. I’m not using that word-rope because it’s only temporary and no one else is helping me do it because this is my fight. It’s just me. It’s a climb that I need to make, even if it’s slow going. There’s no guarantee I’ll ever make it out, but there’s this inexplicable feeling inside me that says I will.
I haven’t been in college for long and it hasn’t been long since I’ve undertaken this fight, and I’m not absolutely certain of what I want to be. What I want to do. Still…helping others is the path I’m on, and I’ll love it. Even if that plan doesn’t pan out, I think I’ll want to help people wherever I go. Raise awareness for mental illness. I’ve felt it and it sucks. It sucks to feel like you’ve got no right to feel unhappy. It sucks to feel like you’ve got no right to feel happy. Sucks that your own genes wage war on your soul, that your own body pushes you deeper into the very hole it’s desperate to escape from. It’s not easy and there are too many that keep quiet about the incredibly real struggle that courses through their veins, myself included, but I want to fight for the day that mental illness isn’t something people ever considered being ashamed of.
I’m queer on top of all this, and God I didn’t want to be. You can’t possibly understand—I had nothing against the LGBTQA+ community; I supported, and continue to support, them wholeheartedly. I just never wanted to be part of it, you know? Never wanted to be a cliché. But I am part of a community now. I am queer and it’s time to stop hiding it, so I’ll fight too for the day where people aren’t ashamed of that either. I’ll turn my own life into a battle against the things I hate about myself so others can love themselves. Doesn’t seem like a bad goal, does it? Maybe along the way I’ll learn to love these broken parts inside of me. For now I’m simply trying to appreciate the machinery I was built with. Maybe it’s a little rusty and imperfect, but it’s mine and I suppose that’s all that really matters. Since I do want to continue down this medical path, I think I want to study the brain. Perhaps that’s a little odd considering my loathing for my own, but, well, allow me to explain.
You are a brain inside of a shell. Our very sense of being is encoded solely into the organ encased by the most protective substance our body can possibly offer: fluid and bone. So we are just a brain, first and foremost. I am just a brain, first and foremost. But it doesn’t feel that way. It feels like my brain is something separate from my being, something I’m always fighting. It feels like something that controls me but something I can’t control. I am a puppet and it is my puppeteer, and how odd is it that I am my brain but it doesn’t feel like me? I am this body I inhabit, this heart that beats, this blood that flows, these lungs that constrict. I am these muscles that flex, these eyes that see, these ears that hear. I am this mouth that pushes condensed pockets of air from these lips to form sound. That feels like me. These fingers tap-dancing across this keyboard feel like me. That brain? That’s not me. How weird is that? I want to study that thing that’s me but doesn’t feel like me. Want to observe its intricacies. I think if I do that then one day I’ll finally feel like my brain is part of me, a gear in the machine that is my body rather than a parasite sent to destroy it. So neurobiology sounds like the perfect thing to study. I can figure out who I am.
That’s funny, isn’t it? I can figure out who I am. The purpose of an application is so you can discover me but how can you when I don’t even know? Do you know who I am? You can’t possibly. I’ll tell you some things that I know, things that you’d never know if I didn’t tell you right now. I’m someone who stays up late, who has an obsession with the hours between midnight and five in the morning when the world expects absolutely nothing from you. Sometimes I stay up so late I hear the birds wake and see the sun yawn into being (which, by the way, is kind of overrated—I prefer sunsets), and I don’t like waking up in the morning but I always unstick myself from my bed for what I need to do. I procrastinate, fiddling with my books and my writings rather than the work due in a week, but I always get it done. There’s never been a time I didn’t turn something in that was due, and sure I’ve cursed the day I was born the night before I handed in the assignment, but I work well under pressure so it’s fine. I’ll love animals until the ends of the earth and I have an electrifying passion for the environment because I’ve never felt more at peace with the war inside me than when nature surrounds me. I hate exercise, think it’s the worst sort of torture I can possibly inflict upon myself, but I resist the pull of my warm cocoon of blankets every evening—okay, fine, almost every evening—to run with the moon (that’s actually the title of a poem I wrote). I have trouble asking for help, feel the words I meant to say stick like a fly to my tongue or fall from my mouth like dust and ash, and it sucks to betray the words but I can redeem myself on paper. I ask for help more often now, when I begin to feel stress sink its wicked fingers into my soul and drag me into the blind panic of oblivion.
That’s me. That’s only a part of me. That’s the me you can’t see in the numbers that dot the page you probably looked at before you read my application a year ago. I won’t deny that the numbers have power. I won’t deny that they have a cold beauty, a dangerous grace. I once liked numbers too. But you know what? I’m more than those numbers. Maybe I don’t quite believe that statement now, but I’ll keep saying it until I do, because I am more than those numbers. Everything I am was put into achieving those numbers, sure, but sometimes it doesn’t translate. You can’t know I hate injustice from my grades. You can’t know that even though I wouldn’t choose to be gay if I had any choice, I still fight for LGBTQ rights from my GPA. You can’t know that I’ve been to twelve different countries spanning five continents, that I’ve buried pieces of myself in the soil of each, that I’ve patched up the cracks with lessons learned and connections forged. You can’t know that I’m broken, that I have holes in my soul, but that I’m piecing myself back together stronger than I was before.
Do you know what I was told to say in order to have a better chance at getting accepted to your college? I was told to say that my school doesn’t challenge me, that I am tired of being the smartest person in my class. Obviously, I was supposed to fluff it up, put my words through a Build-A-Bear workshop to make them pretty and cute. But I refuse, absolutely refuse, to ever say I am the smartest in class. Even in my strongest subjects, even if I have the highest grade, I won’t say I am the smartest. Why? Because genius comes in many forms, many of which are never tested in a classroom.
Perhaps it appears as if I am the best in class, but that could be because there is someone shyer than me who doesn’t speak up. In life, there will always be someone better than me and there will always be someone worse than me. Everyone has different strengths. A person who struggles in English is maybe considered a genius on the piano. How can I, then, who doesn’t even play the piano, be better than him simply because I enjoy English? I am not the smartest in class, and my school does challenge me. At yours I will be challenged as well, more than I am now, and that’s something I’m looking for—but never will I be the smartest in class, and never will I not be challenged. If I am not challenged then I am not experiencing enough of the place at which I reside, and that’s on me.
Listen, you likely read many applications this year, and many of them probably made a strong case for entering your college. The numbers shone with promise; the essays swelled with personality. But you know what? All of them have something to hide. Something they aren’t telling you. Not one of them is whole. If they’re applying to your college and if you’re considering acceptance, know this: They’re broken too. They’ve given up pieces of themselves to qualify. It’s not up to me to say if they’ve lost good or bad pieces, but know that none of them is whole. Some will be seeking your college to fill those pieces of themselves they so desperately want back. I was like that. You’ll accept a few of those people, but they’ll quickly find that words of acceptance on a page won’t heal them. They’ll see that going to your school or any school won’t fix their broken machinery. They’ll try, but in the end only we have the tools to mend ourselves. I’ve started. I’ll finish. I’ve no doubt they will too.
We are supposed to appear strong in this world and all I’ve done, now, is admit weakness. To you, your decision was probably justified: I don’t belong amongst the strong people at your university. But I am confident in myself so it’s fine. Your opinion of me and my value will no longer hold sway over my own opinion of myself and my value. It’s just not worth it anymore. Death has held power over me, life still does…you no longer do. But I am not selfish nor am I foolish. Just because you no longer hold any power over me doesn’t mean you don’t still hold immense power over others. There are hundreds of thousands of students whose future rests on the tiny black lettering of your decision. Know your strength, please. Know your power. You hold much of it, perhaps more than anybody ever realizes. Please, please, please don’t abuse it.