Everything I Know about Shame, I Learned from The Scarlet Letter

By Nicole Woolaston

We received a different reading assignment every three weeks. Each new book meant a new essay, and writing essays is just so much fun! What’s even more fun, is having to stand in front of the class, and read the essay out loud. I mean, who doesn’t enjoy that?

This time around, we were reading The Scarlet Letter, by Nathaniel Hawthorne. So far, I’ve learned the word ignominy. Ignominy must appear in this book two hundred times. Seriously, that’s disturbing. Then again, the book was published in 1850, when people were deeply religious. My ass probably would have been burned at the stake or something.

There is something else I’m learning: shame. This book is teaching me all about shame. Apparently, shame was very important back in 1850. It was so important, they made you walk around with a scarlet letter, identifying your particular sin; branding you for all the world to see. Hester Prynne’s sin was adultery, so she was forced to wear the letter “A” on her chest. If we still did that sort of thing today, I suppose my letter would be an “A”, too. Only, my “A” would stand for asshole, and I would wear it proudly.

This made me think about some of the kids at my school. I mentally assigned a letter to some of the ones I saw every day. For the girls, there were a lot of “B’s” walking around (I’ll let you figure that one out). A couple of the guys would have “J’s” (jackass). Some would have “A’s” (again, asshole). There was one kid in my English class, Timothy, who I believed deserved a big ‘ole “D” for dumbass: the assignment was to read the Scarlet Letter, and bring your copy if the book to class each day. Timothy watched a film adaptation and wrote his essay based on what he saw. In class one day, he proudly declared he was “ahead of everyone else because he watched the movie and finished his essay.”  Needless to say, our teacher made him bring the book to class and said she wouldn’t accept his movie-based essay. Yep. D for dumbass.

There was a girl at my school name Carissa, who slept with one of the boys, and ended up getting pregnant. Carissa was the last person on Earth anyone expected this to happen to, because she was a straight-A student, and at the top of all of her classes. She seemed to be too smart to ever let something like that happen to her. Still, it happened, and there were plenty of whispers around the school about her.

This inspired me to write my essay. We had to write about what we had learned from the book, and since I was learning all about shame, I figured I could inadvertently use Carissa as an example. We were scheduled to read our essays aloud on a Friday morning (what a wonderful way to kick off the weekend). The teacher asked for volunteers to read first, which is always hysterical. “Would anyone care to embarrass themselves in front of the class first? Any takers? No?”

One guy raised his hand, and stood up and read. His essay was on the importance of NOT committing adultery, and he even used his parents as an example. Apparently, his mother cheated on his father, which led to a divorce. The rest of the class didn’t need to know that. Really, we didn’t. But, what has been said aloud, cannot be unsaid.

Finally, it was my turn. I wrote about the importance of shame in the 1800’s. I talked about how it’s a good thing we’re not forced to wear scarlet letters today, because I’m pretty sure we would use the entire alphabet. Timothy shouted something about how Carissa would have to wear an “S” for slut. The rest of the class laughed, and my teacher told everyone to settle down, because Timothy’s comment was rude and inappropriate.

“What would your letter be, Timothy?” I asked. Timothy gave me that “deer caught in the headlights” stare. “In fact, what would any of your letters be?” I continued, looking around the classroom. “Back then, people made mistakes, and their town would shame them. People still make those same mistakes today, but we don’t force anyone to walk around with a letter on their clothes. But I suppose we do shame people, the way Timothy shamed Carissa. I suppose some people are walking around with invisible scarlet letters of shame. In a better world, we wouldn’t judge one another, but it’s a cruel world, and we’re all guilty.”

I didn’t say what I said in hopes of earning an applause, but I got one anyway. I also got an A.

Nicole is an author and artist from New York. She has been writing and creating since early childhood, and is the author of four different series. Most of her work is a reflection of her interests in Japanese anime, manga, and punk rock. You can check out her website, find her on Facebook or Twitter, or email her at woolent@hotmail.com

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