cover_story (2005-39)

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by Leslie Wylie

We’re going over your application and, well, we just wanted to confirm a couple of things,” begins the cautiously bubbly voice on the other end of the line. She’s from Panhellenic, the governing council of the University of Tennessee’s sorority system, and she’s referring to the fact that I’m not your average recruitment applicant.

To start with, it’s been six years since I graduated from high school, and in another six months I’ll have a master’s diploma as well. Even filling out the application was a trying experience, as I struggled to recall SAT scores and high school activities that, if memory serves me, amounted to Art Club, a half-hearted entanglement with the yearbook committee and a few B-grade roles in theater productions. My extracurricular activities couldn’t have looked promising either, coming from a leftwing dictionary-hugger who’d rather shop at Goodwill than the Gap.

“I don’t know how they’ll…you’ll…I don’t know how things will turn out—you’re kind of an, uh, unusual case—but you’re welcome to give it a shot,” she concludes with the strained optimism of a mother before cheerleading tryouts, nursing her klutzy daughter’s soon-to-be-trampled pompom dreams.

No matter how you tap it, the keg of Greek life looms large at UT. Greeks make up 15 percent of the student body and hold down 75 percent of leadership positions on campus. Their presence is both glaring and mysterious, marked by public displays of unity—a parade of white sundresses cascading down the sidewalk—and insinuations of private kinship manifest, for instance, in the burly whoops echoing outward from Frat Row on any given evening. There’s more than just a SUV-checkered parking lot separating non-Greeks from those rowdy frat house porches. There’s a cultural chasm.

If accepted, my application will allow me to traverse that unknown parking lot, to drink deep from that luminous Greek keg’s fizzy, golden depths. Recruitment will be the plastic cup into which I’ll pour my identity, my self-esteem and an entire week of my life if only to experience, for a few moments, the buzz of being on the inside, looking out.

OPEN HOUSE

Or as journalistic fodder. I quiz the leggy blonde, Valerie [real name withheld], next to me on the origin of her last name, a linguistic variation of my own. But when I use the word “etymology,” her model smile twists into a disapproving scowl. Either she thinks I’m talking about a disease, or I’ve offended her with the suggestion of our possible blood relation.

I guess I’d be offended, too. Valerie is everything I’m not, or never will be again: 19 years old, perfectly manicured and J. Crew fashionable, with a fresh-off-the-tanning-bed glow. She’s from Belle Meade, the crown jewel of all preppy Nashville suburbs, and she schools me when I accidentally mistake it for Brentwood. More importantly, Valerie knows exactly what she’s doing with her life.

“I’m majoring in early childhood education,” she says in a focused tone that’s at odds with her eyes, which are busily scanning the courtyard below—presumably for someone cooler than the company she’s in. “I want to have, like, five kids. Things might change, but right now that’s the plan.”

As our conversation grinds to a halt, the cheerleading of our group leader, Sarah Fitzwater, escalates. Sarah is a Gamma Chi, a sorority woman who forfeits her letters during the summer before recruitment to assist objectively with the process. This week, it’s her job to help us navigate the rough social waters that lie ahead.

“Are you ready? Are you excited?” she asks, filtering through my group with a basket of breath mints and tampons. “Remember to smile!” But none of us, at the moment, is smiling. A collective sense of dread has taken hold.

Suddenly, some perky-voiced authority figure shouts the go-ahead. Doors are flung open, and one by one my group is ushered into the vacuum of pop music and enthusiasm that is Phi Beta Phi’s sorority suite. It’s the first of 14 suites, tiered panoramically inside the Panhellenic building, we’ll visit today for 10 whirlwind minutes apiece—an agenda that’s amusing in theory, horrifying in reality. A brunette takes me by the arm and leads me to a couch.

“So, did you get moved into your dorm OK?” she asks, reeling in the full sight of her charge. I try to pinpoint exactly what it is that’s causing her nose to crinkle—my thrift store digs, or my tangled red hair.

“Actually, I live off campus. I’m not actually a freshman, see….”

But my explanation comes too late. In her eyes, I’m no longer a potential sorority sister, or even a wannabe wastebasket in which she can dump 10 minutes of her grace and charm. I’m a hot potato. She flags down one of her sisters, hastily introduces us and rushes off to greet another recruit. I wave goodbye to her swinging ponytail. “So, um,” my new small-talk babysitter begins, smiling, “did you get moved into your dorm OK?”

The remaining minutes drag by like Valerie’s fingernails across the chalkboard of her future. As the tour wears on, each suite we enter presents a new, suspiciously cheerful variation of hell. The pattern loops endlessly—line up, smile, enter, smile, exit, smile and repeat.

Finally, we break for dinner. I carry my sandwich out onto the lawn, where recruits have arranged themselves into high school cafeteria-style clusters. Other than Valerie, who, in the best interest of her white miniskirt, has procured a bench seat, there’s nobody here I know. It’s just as well; I could use a few moments to myself.

I set my sights on a shady spot beneath a tree, but before I get there two recruits flag me down. “You can sit with us if you want,” says the first, backing up her offer with a balmy smile. I sink into the grass, excited by the possibility of a conversation that doesn’t involve dorms.

Their names are Jennifer Wilson and Stacy Stiles, and they’ve been best friends since long before their Carter High School graduation last spring. They seem refreshingly down to earth—minimally made-up, easily coaxed into laughter, oblivious to the grass clippings that stick to their sweaty calves. Jennifer works part-time as a waitress at Cracker Barrel; Stacy wants to major in journalism.

When I ask why they’re going through recruitment, Jennifer explains matter-of-factly, “We’re here to make friends. We’re not into all the drinking and stuff.” Stacy’s head bobs in agreement.

“You know, some people say that joining a sorority is just buying friends,” I prod. Ranging between $350 and $450 per semester, sorority dues add up to a lot of Cracker Barrel tips.

Stacy looks at me, puzzled, before dissolving into giggles. “I don’t know. I guess that’s one way of looking at it.”

Shortly thereafter, we’re back inside. Sarah encourages us: six sororities down, eight to go. No problem. But by the seventh sorority, my smile is fading. By the eighth, it’s gone.

Walking into the Alpha Delta Pi suite, a shrill blonde pulls Valerie and me aside. “Valerie!” she enthuses, clasping my antithesis’ hand. They evidently share a mutual friend in Brentwood, or Belle Meade. “Oh my God! You’re, like, so pretty! Welcome to A D Pi!”

Without loosening her grip, she turns toward me briefly. “Leslie! Nice to meet you….” The polite falsetto of her voice trails off. She turns her attention back to Valerie.

Even the most anticipated rejection can pack a sting. Engulfed in this pastel sorority dreamscape, my life is starting to feel like the Beatles’ White Album played in reverse; everything that used to make sense and I was proud of—my education, self-expression, social skills—now just sounds strange, or sad. I don’t belong amongst these willowy clones, with their youth and beauty. I’m a permanent marker amidst eyeliner pencils, a draft beer inside a Starbucks, Duchamp’s toilet next to the Venus de Milo….   

The sensation of being shoved out A D Pi’s door ushers me back to reality. And with reality comes anger, conveniently housed in a newfound rotten attitude. As we enter the next suite, congeniality no longer applies. If they aren’t going to play nice, neither am I. 

Shamelessly, I interrogate everyone within earshot, countering their innocent, chit-chatty queries with a few I deem more important. Like a pull-string doll, I have a set of them in rotation, each more alienating than the last. “Is that your natural hair color?” and “Where do you work?” are especially unpopular.

But the sharp point of my antagonism wears down quickly, culminating at last in a knobby stub of fatigue. Finally, the day is over. Before we leave, Sarah reminds us to narrow our list of sorority preferences down to 10 by the following afternoon, in time for our first Invitation and Response session.

Later in the evening, I compose my list. Because the sororities mostly blur together in my mind, I employ vague and superficial criteria, eliminating sororities with pink as their official color or teddy bears as their mascots.

I needn’t have bothered. The next day, only four out of 14 sororities even invite me back for Round One.

ROUND ONE

Moyer also insists that recruitment is a less-than-accurate portrait of actual sorority life. “Recruitment is not fun. It’s physically draining. It’s emotionally draining. It’s probably the worst week you’ll have in the four years you’re in a sorority.”

The superlatives continue. “You see the worst of the stereotypes, too, when you go through recruitment. I think many times freshmen come in and they become someone they think they’re expected to be. But once they join a sorority they realize that it’s OK to relax and be themselves.”

Dr. Lowell Gaertner, a UT social psychology professor, supports Moyer’s observation with behavioral theory. “Conformity is a basic part of human behavior,” he explains. “Everybody conforms. You might be conforming to different norms, and those norms might seem bizarre from an outside perspective, but every group has norms. We all change ourselves a bit to fit in, because we need the group, and we want to fit in. There’s nothing unique about sororities.”

Gaertner emphasizes that humans evolved in groups, as groups are necessary social structures. Society itself is essentially a group, with subgroups performing various tasks. “Groups meet needs that we have—affiliative needs, needs for social support, survival needs. They allow us to reciprocate with one another, share with one another.”

Fair enough. Perhaps it’s time to step up my own conformity. For the sake of the story, after all, I need to make it past Round One.

Courtesy of my younger sister’s closet, I show up to Panhellenic the following day in a ruffled pink halter-top, black skirt, heels, lip-gloss and pearls. My toenails are painted a shade called “Bubblegum Kiss,” and my hair is in curls that bounce saucily as I walk.

Most importantly, I’ve got a new and improved attitude. I am perky. I am cute. I love shopping, and I’ve got the trendy outfit to prove it. And short of a good shoe sale, there’s nothing in the world I love more than UT football. My smile is so well rehearsed that no one notices the winces of discomfort, stemming from blistered feet, throbbing earlobes and a hopelessly southbound strapless bra.

Round One is a showcase of the sororities’ involvement in philanthropic causes. Philanthropy is one of four pillars of sorority life, along with scholarship, leadership and sisterhood. Last year alone, UT sororities raised over $130,000 and contributed more than 3,000 service hours to local charities.

All four sororities I visit today seem genuinely interested in community service, but the extent of their involvement varies. Some adopt a very hands-on approach; videos reveal them interacting with children in sync with Faith Hill soundtracks. For others, it seems to be more of an obligation than a passion. Slideshows flash pictures of them mud-wrestling one another in skimpy cutoffs—for charity, of course. 

By this point, the sororities are beginning to distinguish themselves from one another in my mind. Each has a different personality and set of priorities, although the generalizations so frequently made about individual chapters still sound like hasty classifications.

“Sure, there are stereotypes,” says Chip Reeves, a business management major I find sitting on the porch of the Alpha Tau Omega house. Like every focus group of fraternity brothers I interview, he agrees that some sororities have reputations for being wilder, more promiscuous or stuck-up. But for the most part, as Chip puts it, “every sorority’s got its good ones and its bad ones.”

The sororities’ nicknames sound cruel (Catchy Catchy Gonorrhea, Sleazy DZ, Tri Delt: Everybody Else Has, Shady Pi and Chi Ho, to name a few, all falling beneath the umbrella slang “sorostitute”), but Chip explains that they’re more of a tease than anything. “Girls come over here, and they don’t know the limits of their drinking, and they just freak out. They try to keep up with us, but we can drink a lot. Then they pass out and have to be taken home,” he says.

Broader sorority stereotypes are perpetuated by pop culture, from MTV’s reality series Sorority Life , starring a gaggle of catty, boy-crazed rich girls, to UT’s own anonymous rag, Weekly Hangover , with headlines like “eoe…i phelta thigh” and “get drunk as a pirate or a parrot head.” They only fuel the notions of Greek life that Panhellenic Advisor Megan Fields is working to eliminate.

“Nothing frustrates me more,” she says. “Clearly, there is not a mold. There are no requisites for size, shape or blond hair. When they’re walking across campus in their cute dresses and high heels, I’ll admit that it looks that way. But when you talk to them, they’re dynamically different, different from each other.”

Fields says she’s “constantly trying to dispel myths and rumors,” a few of which simply refuse to die. For instance, there’s the urban legend that sorority houses can’t be built on campus because they would be considered “brothels” under state law. “It is not the truth. It was a decision made in 1939. They just chose not to opt for houses,” she says.

Fields’ struggle against stereotypes sounds noble, and Chip’s defense of individualism seems heartfelt, but I’m sticking to my guns: Sorority acceptance is dependent upon superficial whim, and my imminent acceptance at tomorrow’s Invitation and Response session will stand as proof. The sororities I re-invented myself for in Round One will be helpless to resist my charm. My pink nail polish will not have been in vain.

But the following day, there’s only one sorority listed beneath my name: Alpha Xi Delta.

ROUND TWO

“Sarah,” I moan dejectedly, “I just don’t know what they want from me. I mean, I was myself, mostly, and then I dressed up and curled my hair, but they still didn’t….”

There’s a long pause, during which Sarah processes my pathetic inquiry. Finally, she speaks up. “That’s why there are 14 different sororities. Each one’s selection is different. Each one is looking for different things.”

“Oh,” I stutter, frankly stunned that she hadn’t suggested I just throw in my high heels and call it a day.

The sensible advice continues. “I would just be yourself, because after recruitment, you’re still going to be yourself. You don’t want to try to fit into a mold, because that would be lying. You know?”

She’s right. The next day, I walk into Alpha Xi’s suite with the grim determination of a girl with nothing left to lose. 

With 45 members as opposed to the typical 100-plus, Alpha Xi is one of the smallest chapters at UT. Accordingly, their suite feels airier, less cramped.

One member, Nikki Schmitt, sits down with me at a table. She’s blonde and talkative, with a Jersey accent that gains velocity as her story unfolds. She came to Knoxville last year with the lifelong aspiration of becoming a UT cheerleader and was crushed when she didn’t make the squad. In joining Alpha Xi, she explains, she regained her sense of acceptance: “I felt like I could bring something to the table here. Maybe I look like a typical sorority girl, blonde and everything, but I don’t feel like one. Everyone here is diverse.”

It’s worth noting that the concept of diversity, as it exists within a sorority context, usually has nothing to do with race or ethnicity. Rather, a sorority that prides itself of being “diverse” tends to attract members from out-of-state or be involved in a variety of extracurricular activities.

In fact, UT’s Greek system is divided into traditionally white, African American and Hispanic sororities and fraternities, although no organization is officially exclusive to students of a particular race or ethnicity. The Interfraternity Council recognizes 23 fraternities, three of which are also chapters of a different governing body called Black Greek Letter Council (BGLC). The Panhellenic Council is comprised of 19 sororities, including four BGLC chapters. There is also one sorority geared toward Latina women.

Intuitively, the system feels dated; of all the recruits I’ve been surrounded by this week, I’ve seen no African Americans and only noticed one Asian woman, since BGLC has a separate recruitment process called intake that takes place later in the year. But there’s no push at this point to implement measures such as forced integration or racial quotas.

“That [traditionally Caucasian or African American sororities] is something that has come out based on the students’ needs and desires,” says Panhellenic advisor Fields. “I don’t know that it will ever be one council. My thoughts from the students are that it’s not what they would choose. But if they wanted it to be one council, it would be one council.”

After a while, the Alpha Xi sisters stand up to perform a skit. In accordance with their suite’s tropical-theme décor, the performance followsa cruise ship full of sorority members as they visit various destinations with names like Academic Island and Philanthropy Bay. There’s a couple of singing numbers, and Nikki performs a back handspring as the grand finale.

Impressed with my hostess’s gymnastic prowess, I throw my hands up in wild applause, accidentally snagging a nearby tiki torch with my sleeve in the process. As if in slow motion, the heavy pole crashes down onto the recruit in front of me. The clapping ceases. Everyone turns around.

“I’m OK, no problem,” says the recruit, rubbing her head. A sister runs up to assure me that it’s not my fault, and everyone starts to laugh. I feel a little embarrassed, but Sarah would be proud: At least I’m being my usual inelegant self.

The next day’s session focuses on sorority rituals, and my streak of social awkwardness continues. To start with, I never got the memo that black cocktail dresses were the dress code du jour, but thankfully, the candle-lit suite is dark enough that my fashion violations—a bright red scarf, aquamarine T-shirt and hair that hasn’t seen a brush in days—aren’t too glaring. After we’re all handed roses and cupcakes, a trio of vocalists strikes up a rendition of Bette Midler’s classic, “The Rose.”

At first, I think the sentimental drama is a show. But then the Alpha Xi sitting next to me stands up to read a handwritten letter to one of her sisters, seated at a nearby table. As the reader’s voice tiptoes across terms of endearment, the paper begins to shake in her hands. She forces out the words in unintelligible mumbles, and finally both sisters break down into heaving sobs.

“How long have you known each other?” I ask the letter-reader when she’s safely collapsed back into her seat.

“Since spring,” she replies, smiling. Another tear tumbles down her cheek, leaving behind a trail of watery mascara. Before I can stop myself, I reach out to wipe it away.

BID DAY

OK, enough. I left my cell phone in the car. And I’m wearing the same clothes I had on yesterday, and the only thing my body is glistening with is sweat. I clutch a water bottle in one hand and a cup of gas station coffee in the other. Today, I don’t want to be in a sorority. I want to be in my bed.

While I prop myself up against a concrete pillar, Sarah starts gathering up my group for a round of pictures. “I’ll get in the next one,” I say, shooing her away. “I’m just going to hang out here for a few minutes.”

She shrugs, and the other girls huddle together in yearbook formation. “Hey,” one of them says, standing up and looking around. “Where’s Valerie?”

As it turns out, Valerie dropped out of recruitment after the second round, having learned that she’d been blacklisted by all but two sororities. “Someone actually started a rumor about me that I passed out naked at the SAE house, which is absolutely outrageous!” she later explained. “My mom was a Phi Mu and called the sorority people to try and find out how that could happen, but once they drop you, you’re dropped.”

Stacy, who was going through recruitment with her best friend Jennifer, also dropped out after Round Two. “I felt like it just wasn’t for me,” she recalls. “I love community service, but I got the feeling that it wasn’t as much about philanthropy as they lead you to believe in the first round. It kind of felt more like you were buying friends.”

Jennifer ended up pledging with Alpha Omicron. She was a legacy, meaning she had a family member—in this case a sister—who was an alumna.

Of the 869 girls who began recruitment, 624 will end up pledging today. The time draws near, and we’re each handed envelopes. Even though I have no intention of accepting the bid I’ve been handed, my stomach is still corseted with nerves.

When we’re given the nod to open our envelopes, there’s a fluttering of paper, and a shrill cry goes up from the crowd. Cells phones are taken from purses; numbers are dialed with trembling fingers. Some girls start crying with happiness, pausing to hug one another before they rush inside to receive the embrace of their new sorority sisters. Others linger outside, stunned, confused. Their faces grow blotchy. A few begin to cry.

When the stampede dies down, I peel open my own envelope. “The sisters of the Gamma Lambda Chapter of Alpha Xi Delta cordially invite….”

I imagine the sisters, armed with smiles and flowers, waiting upstairs to greet me and guiltily stuff the letter back into its envelope. Sarah pokes her head out of the building. “Aren’t you going to go upstairs to your suite?” she asks.

“In a minute,” I reply without conviction. One more lie can’t hurt Sarah, or anybody else whose genuine concern I’ve taken advantage of over the past week. I feel like Holden Caulfield from The Catcher in the Rye , so terrified at the notion of phoniness in others that I lost sight of the only integrity that was mine to defend.

The scene reminds me of a front yard in the Fort on a Sunday morning. The quiet aftermath of some midnight chaos, a party you missed or weren’t invited to, or something from your past. Seeing what remains: kegs floating in tepid water, a lawn littered with crumpled plastic cups and, inside, a mass of silent, slumbering casualties. But anybody can look through a window. It takes guts, more guts than I have, to knock on a door.

© 2005 MetroPulse. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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