Return to My Life

Wesleyan (1) – The Rush

Wesleyan University campus

(Continued from Kansas)

After a long train and bus trip, I arrived in Middletown Connecticut in the fall of 1959, lugging a suitcase and a rucksack.  Middletown was only about 30 miles from Rockville, where I had been a foster child just four years earlier.  The campus sits on a slight hill a few blocks above  downtown.  The buildings, all of stone, some with Gothic flourishes, some covered with ivy, set apart on spacious lawns, conformed to the photographs I had seen in the catalogue, and confirmed that I was back on the East Coast, and no longer in Kansas.  A wall-sized window facing greenery brightened my ground floor dorm room.  The furnishings were plain but well-made.  I felt uplifted.  The encounters with the roommate and other incoming freshmen went off without friction.

The university at that time was only just beginning to emerge from a century of indenture to the Greek system.  Greek-letter fraternities, each affiliated with a national parent group, owned practically all the available housing for upperclassmen — the school was nothing but men at that time —  and provided nearly all student meals.  Each house stood in competition against the others; its survival depended on filling its rooms.   But not just with anyone!  Most of the national Greek associations had written or unwritten exclusionary policies against Jews and African-Americans.

At the time of my arrival, anti-discrimination lawsuits had forced several of the local Greek houses to disaffiliate (at least pro forma) from their parent groups, and one of the houses had gone further and changed its name to a Latin acronym, instead of Greek, to make a point.  The university had also put more resources into a residence for unaffiliated students, the John Wesley Club.  Still, the fraternities dominated campus culture and set the agenda.  The necessary chores of choosing courses, finding one’s classrooms, buying books and supplies, and getting into the mental frame for academic work had to compete for attention with the much more compelling business of fraternity “rush.”

At an orientation meeting for the incoming freshman class, each fraternity had a speaker who touted his house.  Some of the houses pitched for jocks, some held out the lure of prestige, some promised (in so many words) to give you the answers to exams, some hinted at their great parties with wild women, and all touted the the life-long advantages of being connected with influential “brothers.”  The speakers were all nice guys who could get jobs selling used cars on television.  The speaker who stood out represented the John Wesley Club.  I am kicking myself for not being able to remember his name.  He had nothing to sell, since the “Club” was university-owned housing.  He said that the John Wesley Club was a good place to study and that you could form friendships there or not, as you chose.  He said that, contrary to rumor, there were “no practicing homosexuals” at the Club.   He said nothing about brotherhood, parties, prestige, or cheat sheets.  He was the only one who struck me as both smart and honest.

Fraternity rush consisted of a round of parties, open houses, where freshmen and fraternity members met and sized one another up.  Each house featured an open bar.  There was beer, wine, and every kind of hard liquor, and the “brothers” worked hard to make sure that no paper cup stayed empty.

I was new to drinking.  Not long before my departure for college, my mother had sat me down and told me that I was going to be a man soon — my 18th birthday was coming up — and needed to learn to drink and to smoke.  Under her tutelage, I went through and got past the gagging, nausea, retching, dizziness and other warning signals my body was sending me.  Soon I was able to maintain my composure while downing a glass and puffing a cigarette.

But this bit of home schooling didn’t prepare me for fraternity rush.  Before the end of the evening’s parties I was crawling on hands and knees back to my dorm room and passed out on my bed.  I woke in the morning covered in my vomit.  Well, that was unpleasant, but it was all part of the game.  I rinsed myself and the bed linen in the shower, hung the linen out the window to dry, and got on with the day.  In the evening, more of the same.  And the next, and the next.  Eventually, I learned to hold my liquor, but the damage was done.  Alcohol had got its hooks into my brain.

The round of parties also wore down  my initial resistance to the whole array of frat culture.  There were two houses that appealed to me.  One was the temple of prestige, the other was the Latin house that made a point of having disaffiliated from its parent over the  exclusion of Jews.  The temple of prestige, however, showed no interest in me, the fatherless first-generation immigrant scholarship student; that was not a fit at all.  After some hesitation, I joined the “Latin” house.

Eating at the fraternities was expensive, and to help ends meet I became a server in the house’s dining hall.  The job was part of my deal for affiliating.  Although it had broken with its parent organization, this house retained all the rest of the Greek nonsense.  There were endless beer parties that left the dining hall floor awash in brew.  There were hazing rituals with beanies and buckets of water and mooning and other silliness.  It all took up a lot of time and energy.

Toward the end of the first semester, we “pledges” were being groomed for the secret initiation ceremony. There would be ordeals and trials and robes and candles and ancient incantations.  In preparation, each of us was given an unfinished piece of wood cut in the shape of a short paddle.  We were assigned the name of a senior frat “brother.”  Our job was to carve the name of our brother into the paddle and to decorate it and finish it as elaborately as possible.   We would be graded on our work, and then it would be applied to our backsides in the initiation ritual.  At that point I had enough.  With a ballpoint pen, I wrote on the wood:

Good men paddle their own canoes
Great men carve their own paddles.

I handed in the paddle, resigned from the house and put in a bid to live at the John Wesley Club the following year.

Today, Wesleyan appears to have got free of the Greek garbage at last.  I see from the school’s website that all undergraduates now live in university housing and eat at university dining halls throughout their four years.  That is a great step forward.  I don’t much hold with regrets, but I do sometimes find myself wishing that progress had moved a bit further before I got there.

Change was also underway at the chapel.  The university was named after the founder of Methodism, and in the fall of 1959 it required all students to attend chapel on Wednesday nights.  I don’t know how it started or who started it, if anyone did, but at the appointed hour on Wednesdays, hundreds of students gathered on the lawn outside the chapel and didn’t go in.  It was like a chapel strike.  There were no signs, no chants, no picket lines, no bullhorns, no organizers or leaders that I could make out.  There was just a consensus that we weren’t going in, no way no how.

I have to hand it to the University administration; they didn’t try enforcement, repression or retaliation.  They read the tea leaves and saw that compulsory chapel was history.  Quietly, they  dropped the requirement and handed over the Wednesday night chapel program to new hands.  Instead of the traditional parade of Methodist chaplains, the chapel building on Wednesday nights now offered musical programs and topical speakers.  I heard excellent string quartets there.  The organist E. Power Biggs came and showed off his dazzling technique and sense of humor.  Ravi Shankar, then virtually unknown in the U.S., with a tabla accompanist, entranced and blew people’s musical minds.    The chapel was not afraid of controversy.  Among other advocates, I heard Malcolm X speak there; his was a voice of rare penetration and courage, a jet of oxygen.  (At some time in 1964, I got to hear him again at a Harvard venue, and got to cluster around him afterward, ask a question, and shake his hand.)  Soon the Wesleyan chapel building was full every Wednesday night, and people even came up from the town.

(Continued in College (2) – Teachers)

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