Waiting in line on a landing in Old Union, I try to remember if my last name has ever caused me this much anxiety. I have no reason to be nervous, but as the girls behind me fidget or stare vacantly at the elevator or make small talk about each others’ shoes and the ASSU elections, it becomes difficult not to succumb to the palpable tension.
My surname has sentenced me to the role of unwilling trailblazer: “Face the doors,” I am told. “Come on, smile! Are you all in alphabetical order? Okay, in these last couple minutes, we need you to be silent.” Through the crack in the poker-faced double doors, flashes of neon dart back and forth.
It is Friday, the first night of Rush, and I have no idea what to expect. The doors swing open and the half-sung, half-shouted chorus of a song whose lyrics are peppered with Greek letters overpowers us. I step tentatively into the room, where a walkway has been formed between two lines of dancing, rally-clad girls. During my split second of hesitation, a hand blindsides me and grabs my elbow. Before I can fully process what is happening, one of the singing girls is escorting me down the walkway. Not knowing what else to do, I smile like a debutante.
Once the song is over, the Theta who just had her elbow hooked in mine turns to face me, introduces herself, introduces me (by way of my own name tag) and verbally notes my hometown. Then the barrage of questions begins: Where are you living? Do you know what you want to major in? What did you do over spring break? What activities do you do on campus?
The room is obscenely loud–I must ask her to repeat things over and over again, and I feel my vocal cords straining, not really sure if sound is coming out. Simple answers are best. If you can talk a long time about shallow things, more power to you. It’s much too loud to articulate or comprehend anything nuanced or complicated.
Out of necessity, our faces are too close for comfort, limiting my scope of vision. So when another girl approaches us, it seems that she has emerged from thin air. The two sorority sisters hug and gush greetings at each other, engaging in a trading-places ritual that I will soon realize follows a predictable script.
“This is one of my best friends, X; X, this is Helen. We were just talking about how she does Y. It was great meeting you, Helen! I’ll let the two of you continue our conversation.” And she disappears.
After several rounds of this–including an intermission in which we watch a film made by the sorority that, almost without fail, includes a rendition of “Black and Yellow” with said sorority’s colors subbed in–the singing/shouting begins again and we are herded toward the door, waving little goodbyes to whichever sister we were last chatting with.
Our Rho Gammas (Recruitment Guides) meet us outside, where they warn us that it is of the utmost importance that we not discuss the parties with each other (“We want you to make the decision that’s right for you.”) and remind us that if we still have our cell phones on us, we must hand them over right away.
Then they usher us to the next party. (The word “party” is misleading, “interview” being slightly more accurate, but still not quite on the mark.) Many girls, wearing high heels and short summer dresses in the cold evening, are shivering as we wait in line again.
This is a world where beauty trumps comfort and great lengths are undergone to achieve this beauty: indirectly, I hear tales of one girl whose mother comes to her dorm every day before Rush to do her hair and makeup. I notice that the girl next to me has her nails painted alternating pastel shades of pink, teal and lavender, which coordinate precisely with the colors in her top, and I wonder if she will have changed them by tomorrow.
The ritual repeats for each of the seven sororities, almost exactly the same every time: alphabetical order, the checking and rechecking of the roster, the Rho Gamma slipping the list through the door, waiting, our entrance, the elbow grab, the girl-flirting. I have the same conversation so many times that I lose track of whether I’ve told the current girl about my a cappella group yet. I find myself mirroring her–her mannerisms, the pitch of her voice–in a subconscious attempt to make a good impression.
My cheekbones become sore from constant smiling. Between parties, the girls in my group bond over simple things–our freezing limbs, hunger, fading voices, Rebecca Black’s “Friday,” a mutual love of butterscotch candy.
While waiting to go to our last party of the night, the girl standing next to me says, “I want to tell them to just cut the bullshit; bring on the real questions.” She recounts that, during absentee night, one sorority girl asked her if she would rather give up cheese or oral sex for the rest of her life.
So I enter the second night anticipating a greater challenge. But I am disappointed–I continue to have the same trivial conversations as before.
Earlier, while we waited for the Day Two parties to begin, we all convened on the second floor of Tresidder as a Rho Gamma with a megaphone repeated the rules to us. If we were late to even a single party, she warned, we would be withdrawn from Formal Recruitment entirely. This was serious business.
We are given the list of parties that we will be attending. Having long ago chosen to disregard the don’t-discuss-the-sororities-with-your-friends rule, my friends and I compare lists. Some are dejected because they weren’t asked back to the sororities they liked the most. I try to comfort them by pointing out the randomness of the process–you only get to talk to a few girls from each sorority anyway, and who’s to say if you’ll hit it off with them?
They move past their disappointment, deciding that they probably wouldn’t have fit in at those sororities anyway. Others are not so stoic–I hear about girls breaking down into tears when they see their night’s party list, although I don’t bear witness to this myself.
Saturday is Skit Night. I begin to notice patterns in the way the girls tell you about their sororities. We aren’t the stereotypical sorority, I hear from sorority sisters in party after party. Most of them didn’t think they even wanted to go Greek, but then they met these wonderful, genuine girls and the rest is history.
“So we’re a sorority,” shrugs an AEPhi. “It happens.” Still, their skits never fail to revel in the sorority stereotypes: each group brags that they party the hardest, that all the frat boys want to get with them. One of my friends comes back from the Kappa party and says, “They were basically stripping!”
I begin to gain slight insights into the mechanics of the process. During a Pi Phi party, I notice a handful of Pi Phis conversing with each other in my peripheral vision. One of them breaks off from the huddle and approaches the sister I am talking to and me. They perform their choreographed swap, and as the new girl asks me how I became interested in swing dancing, the old one takes her place in the cluster of Pi Phis. I can only guess that she must be reporting back about me.
Later on, my friends and I speculate about the orchestration of the parties. Are the girls assigned to come up to you in a predetermined order? Do they have some sort of secret distress signal to indicate when they want another girl to swoop in and take over? On the third night, an AEPhi will tell me that, after the parties, each sister ranks the girl(s) they talked to on a scale from 1 to 7. It is done similarly at most sororities, she says.
A few days later, as my friends’ Facebook walls overflow with “WELCOME TO TRIDELT!”s and “So happy you’re a Chi O!”s, I pause to reflect on this phenomenon of American culture.
What makes girls so willing to jump through hoops to join these organizations? Is it the thrill of exclusivity? The stability of an automatic group of friends? I think back to something one of my fellow A-namers said while we stood next to each other in front of yet another closed door, the same girl who declared that there was no contest: she would easily give up oral sex if it meant she wouldn’t have to pass up the cheese tray.
“We get to judge them too,” she had said, mildly gleeful, referring to the process of indicating our sorority preferences at the end of the night. “It’s a two-way street.”