If you’ve ever participated in a sorority rush workshop, then you know what it means to both love and loathe people at the same time. You might even have nightmares to this very day, born from the insanity that continuous hand clapping and smiling had on your psyche. If you’ve never participated in one of these tests of both patience and friendship, then welcome to my latest voyage of “I shit you not.”
It was the middle of July in the late ’90s. I was ruthlessly leading my band of hormonal players toward what would be the best rush week my chapter would ever have. This was back in the day when rush consisted of intricately staged skits with hand crafted set pieces, pop songs rewritten into cheesy messages of loyalty, mega-choreographed dances, 10-minute videos with awesome facts like, “Our members include Miss Mosquito Queen” or other bizarre but noteworthy belt notches, and of course, awkward conversations over lemonade and cookies. The awkward conversations have not changed. Rush (or recruitment, as it’s more delicately called now) has largely remained four days of forced cheeriness, head bobbing, clapping (or snapping!), and yes, awkward conversation all geared toward a bright-eyed 18-year-old’s life-changing decision — a decision that will set the course for the rest of her life. In fact, whether she lives or dies is solely reliant on which house she runs to in her little cut-off jean shorts on Bid Day. And that house’s fate is in her hands too. A bad rush on either side could end the world. It’s that serious, people.
Okay, it’s not. But when you’re in the thick of it, it is life or death. The stakes have never been so high, and winning it all — taking in numerous and the most sought after girls — is a priceless social ticket. Basically, it means you no longer need to try to be cool, you just are by association. The frats love you. The sororities envy you, and you are the favored child of your national headquarters. Thus, my band of hormonal players and my severe anxiety on that mid-July Saturday in the chapter room 20-some-odd years ago. We were determined to win the golden ticket. And God knows why, but they had elected me to get us there.
I’ll admit I was not a kind rush chair most days. I approached my role like a stereotypical ballet instructor. Orders, rather than requests, a demand for excellence, and bitchiness were all on the table. In response, my sisters were on the brink of overthrowing their tyrannical leader. I’d been drilling them in practice conversations and rehearsals for six months. How many more practice sessions of “Hi! My sister told me you like guinea pigs. I have a guinea pig named Peanut Butter. What’s your guinea pig’s name?” or the like could they be expected to have? How many more times could they rehearse the four part harmony I’d had written for our most sacred songs? How much bigger could the fountain they were building in our foyer for preference night get? Several more times and much bigger in my opinion! But, they were exhausted, close to hating each other, and definitely plotting my demise — presumably by way of a rabid guinea pig.
So at the workshop in question, I shouldn’t have been surprised when the following happened.
“This is Adonis. He will be our very own pianist for the rest of our rehearsals and during rush,” I said to the group.
My exuberant introduction of Adonis was followed by a wave of laughter. I, in turn, shot my best death stare. What the hell was so funny?
“Now, as our pianist, he will…”
And, again, more giggles ensued. I ignored them.
“A pianist is a…”
When the laughter turned to howls, I finally said, “Seriously, y’all? What is so funny.”
“It’s you!” someone (brave) said.
“Yeah, every time you say pianist, it sounds like penis. And you don’t even know it.”
I was the only one not laughing. Even Adonis, the chapter penis—er, pianist—was laughing.
But I was a proud leader, valiantly steering us to victory whether they appreciated me or not. History would remember me fondly, even if they didn’t.
“You guys are so immature,” I said. “Pee-a-nist is a word. A real word.”
“Yeah, a word that sounds like penis!” someone shouted.
Lots of laughter continued — laughter that I could not enjoy in my quest to control a situation unwilling to cooperate with me.
“Okay!” I yelled. “Enough already. We have work to do. Pianist is a word. Penis is a word. But they are not interchangeable. Get over yourselves!”
And then a short, unassuming sophomore, probably the quietest member of our chapter, a member so easily overlooked because she lacked the bravado to stand out in a crowd of 60 college-aged women, did something most unexpected. There, in the front row, she gave me the middle finger. That tiny, newly-initiated tot straight up looked me square in the eyes and showed me where I could sit and spin!
Forget Paul Revere. This was the shot heard ‘round the world — a little act of defiance, immediately accompanied by gasps and murmurings that rippled through the room.
“Did you see that?”
“Who knew she had balls?”
“Wait. Who did that?”
“Her?! You go, girl!”
And I, for the first time since that first workshop when the first guinea pig came up in painfully awkward conversation, finally laughed. Try as I might, I couldn’t hold it together. I couldn’t ignore the absurdity of it all. Here I was repeating the word penis more times in a three-minute period than anyone besides a 12-year-old boy would and I was just given the middle finger by Cindy Lou Who herself. I was an asshat, a certified grade-A asshat, who needed to get off her high horse and over herself. If someone shooting me the bird made me feel lighter than I had in weeks, I needed to get a grip. I could work hard. I could inspire my sisters to work hard. But I couldn’t suck the life out of the room in order to feel the control I needed to chill the eff out. What I could do was remember why I took the job in the first place. Those bitches were my sisters, the same ones who, before I lost my sense of humor, I’d have fought for if anyone else dared to hurt. I guess that made them as complicated as family and something I’d forgotten.
I recently thought about this story while navigating the dangerous waters of staying informed about the current crises in our world while simultaneously trying to avoid views, opinions, and philosophies that I find irritating, angering, or just plain ridiculous. Its effects are like a drug. I hate that what I may read does a number to my mental health, but I also can’t stay away. (Did she make another ignorant comment today? I’m gonna log in and check and then get off before it pisses me off. But of course it never goes that way.) The sanity I’ve lost ever since this whole global nightmare began is palpable. I’m more emotional, short-tempered, judgmental, and many days not very fun to be around. I’ve lost my mojo and my sense of humor, just like a 20-year-old rush chair who couldn’t get off her soapbox long enough to laugh at the word penis. And today I come before you, wishing that somewhere out there is someone brave enough to shoot me the bird again and get me to laugh a deep, howling, belly laugh — one that prays for a cure to a killer virus, trusts that her pocketbook will remain steady in the meantime, but is open to forgiving those whom she loved so dearly before politics ripped us apart.
I know enough to know that saving the world from a deadly virus is more serious than a rush workshop. But to the Annie of back then, her world did hang on the outcome of a good rush workshop. But I also got swallowed up by pride, and in turn, completely forgot why I even chose that group to begin with — the very group I was so desperate to see succeed. How different then is the circumstance I find myself in today? The very society I want to see pull through, the businesses I want to see hold strong, the children I want to see thrive, and the people I want to see survive are also victim to my short-sightedness. If they all mean that much to me, why then should a mask stand in the way? Or who goes to brick and mortar school? Or who eats at a restaurant? Why am I allowed to assume the worst of someone but no one can assume the worst of me? And furthermore, why should something none of us can control the outcome of — like a dangerous virus — be the end of decency and our relationships?
I shouldn’t have to wait until this is all over to remember why I called this person friend or that person family before. Just like I was capable at 20 years old to step back and laugh at the absurdity of my world then, I’m surely able to do that now. So, if I shoot you the bird the next time you get too cozy on your soapbox, know that it’s out of love. Just kidding. But really, I think it’s time we remind one another why we accepted the invitation to be friends in the first place — even if just long enough for a shared belly laugh.