I was coming home from the gym the other night and I saw a guy decked out — head to toe — in fraternity gear. Now, this guy was either a) an extremely old-looking student; b) coming from an alumni event; or c) a complete freakjob, because he looked to be at least my age, or older. (To give you perspective, there are double-digits between me and my college graduation date.)
It is my sincere hope that he was returning from some kind of alumni event. Tis the season, after all.
But seeing Fraternity Guy reminded me that I was once upon a time pinned to my fraternity boyfriend.
My non-American friends always find my sorority past fascinating. That past was formative, maybe. But fascinating? Not really. I had this same conversation over dinner in London a few months ago with an expat sorority sister, who is now married to a Brit. She said How do you explain Greek life to the British?
And I shrugged. Of all the things that one can and cannot bring across the Pond, Greek life is one thing I’ve found that simply does not translate. There are analogues, certainly. But while the British seem willing to accept (and even adopt!) such things as Prom, they seem unable to wrap their minds around the concept of sororities and fraternities. Secret societies have existed in university culture since time immemorial…and yet, undergraduates in matching sweatshirts do not compute.
So once upon a time, when my friends were the executives of our sorority chapter, we concocted a plot to get me pinned. This was harder than it might have appeared at first blush, because my then-boyfriend was not the romantic type, and had been engaged in a weird battle with his fraternity over live-out dues (i.e., the cost of membership for people who did not live in the fraternity house). And I was generally not the most popular girl in my sorority because I’d never held a leadership role aside from being a career Chaplain, and while as an adult I am often perceived as being kind of cold, as an undergraduate I was sometimes called frigid.
These obstacles were handily overcome when my then-boyfriend’s fraternity agreed to pick up a large portion of the cost of the event.
And we were off!
The substance of a pinning isn’t particularly interesting to most non-Greeks, so suffice it to say that it includes singing, and a candle-passing, and then a reading of a sweet letter written by the boyfriend as all the sisters stand in a circle in the safe enclave of the sorority house. And then there is serenading by the fraternity, and the sorority women sing back. There are speeches. And then everyone goes out to a party.
But in my chapter, there was also a tradition of a mini “hen party” between the reading of the letter and the mutual serenading bit. And my then-boyfriend had missed the memo that he was supposed to write a sweet note, so he wrote a horrid letter. It had to be rewritten by my friends before it could be presented at the candle-passing.
To make matters more difficult, I had petulantly decided that I wanted my hen party to be at Skybar, because back then, the place was still uber cool. In those days, you had to call the answering service and leave a message and they’d call you back if they felt like giving you a table.
Clearly, a bunch of sorority twits were not going to warrant service during that era. So one of my hip sisters who aspired to a career in the movie industry hatched a plan and left a message claiming that a famous producer wanted to send over a gaggle of interns — could we have a few tables that Monday night? The producer’s name she used was very well known in the industry, but it wasn’t a household name.
Obviously, this worked.
So we survived the candle-passing and the nails-on-chalkboard letter, and made it to Skybar where we ordered one round of drinks which we paid for, and another round of drinks, which apparently were accidentally billed to this producer (I can neither confirm nor deny that).
Then we went back to the sorority house for the main event. In true Meredith fashion, I’d invited my parents to witness the spectacle. They, in turn, had invited my Auntie and Uncle. And really, why not? My sorority sisters thought this was spectacularly weird.
The pinning was supposed to mean something — it was supposed to be a big commitment between the two of us. In the moment, it was all sort-of meaningful. And then again, not. After the pinning, we scattered for limos and buses and we went off to a big party on the beach that lasted until all hours. People wound up in the ocean.
The whole thing was silly, and weird, and uniquely American. And as you all well know, that boyfriend wasn’t The One. But the night when I wore the red dress, and Tink read the Fake Letter, and we were a Famous Producer’s Interns — everything was perfect.
Having attended both my pinning and my wedding, I would have to say that while neither of the men were right, and both the events were sort-of disasters, the pinning was definitely the funner of the two.
But, to my point: Some things translate well and some don’t. I’m so quick to point out what doesn’t. But at their core sororities, fraternities, pinnings, weddings are merely bonding rituals recited in a universally understood language of love and charades. And the experience of being bonded to others by way of ritual does not need to be translated. It is human; it simply…is.
The reasons for wearing head-to-toe fraternity gear well into one’s thirties, however, require further explanation.