This past spring, during some godforsaken AP course in my last weeks of high school, the Princeton Review posted its new rankings of colleges and universities. My bud Abbey and I were nothing short of stoked to tell all our co-graduates that we would be leaving in August for the #3 party school in America with the #10 happiest students and the #3 best Greek scene on the #13 most beautiful campus with the #10 amount of hard liquor consumed. Our best friend told us she’d just checked the rankings too, and that her school, Cornell, had the #1 highest suicide rate. We told her to visit us at our own Ivy League, the long-ago-nicknamed “Harvard of the South,” and not vice versa.
And once at Ole Miss (though not really a part of it all), another set of confidence-boosters emerged to ease us out of the depression of our football team’s season. Newsweek compiled scores in three categories (campus, girls, and guys) to announce the nation’s #1 MOST BEAUTIFUL university. We won. We went out to the bars to celebrate. Billboards were put up on the highway from Memphis to Oxford, simply reading “Thanks, Newsweek.” And just after that, a publication entirely comparable to Newsweek — Tailgater Monthly — named Ole Miss and its Grove the #1 tailgating experience in the country. Or the world I guess, because who else tailgates?
These rankings are what I think about as I look around, from one impeccably dressed alcoholic to the next. Standing in the Grove, rather, wandering it because my family does not come here and my hometown tailgating tent is not always present, I’m pretty much usually dressed well. My roommate and I consistently wake up on Saturdays with no idea how Friday ended, and we swap stories, divvy up ibuprofen, and get ready for our big day and football game. So now, in the spirit of the end of football season, I mourn the Grove.
Girls, the gems of our beautiful little world, are in wedges, which are considered a comfortable compromise, or heels, or on the coldest days dressy boots. I’m looking from girl to girl, envious yes, but mostly just intimidated by the sundresses, Ray Ban or Prada shades, and pearls. The abundance of the pearls. Wrists, necks, earlobes decked out in fat globs of shining white or ivory pearls, the ultimate indicator of what is classy and right in this world.
… I don’t have any pearls …
The classiness goes beyond us, though, to our alumni, mostly former Greek members themselves. They cover tables within tents with white tablecloths. Chandeliers hang from the framework beneath the canopies. Some bring out candelabras to decorate the folding tables, others their finest china on which to serve tortilla chips and corn salsa, buffalo wings, or in the best tents Mississippi delta tamales.
Usually I park myself at the tent of my sorority Big Sister, basically my best friend in the mire of Oxford society, and she pops a plastic-cupped mimosa into my hand. Her parents suggest I enjoy their array of divinely salty snacks, perfect for my current state, and no thank you I will not be leaving this hunk of heaven for any athletic event.
Hey, the food is good, the company better, and most of us don’t go to the football game.
There’s a reason for that. As seriously as we take tailgating, it is impossible for us to take our football team’s season and record anything but lightly. We haven’t beaten a single SEC team all year… not even Vanderbilt, the actual Harvard of the South. We lost to Brigham Young University, the Princeton Review’s #1 most stone-cold sober school in the nation, even amid the raucous time their fans experienced here in the Grove. We lost our homecoming game to Louisiana Tech. Our record is shameful, but our indulgence on gamedays could be labeled nothing but shameless.
At this point, champagne still pouring, I feel less intimidated by the most beautiful ladies in the whole American collegiate universe, and I start to worry more about the opposite end of the spectrum… the, yes, most attractive, guys. It is very easy to feel overlooked here in the Grove. When you realize your college is the country’s most beautiful in terms of people, it gets a little bit hard to tell who is “pretty” and who is “really pretty” and who is “pretty on the inside.” It gets hard, when I put in my retainer at night and walk around dorm floors in shower shoes, when I throw unbrushed hair into some excuse for a ponytail, to maintain the difference between effortlessly attractive and just plain effortless. In my campus uniform of shorts or leggings with an oversized T-shirt or pullover, I’m not visibly trying, but I’m trying. What if I get caught on the sidewalk behind the student union by that one fraternity pledge who asked me to a themed party without even really getting to know me and then tried to get in touch with me but couldn’t find the right means to and so thus we didn’t talk for a solid two weeks or so until we inevitably ran into each other at a party and ended up playing Mario Kart in his room and he just made me laugh and laugh and laugh? How would I feel about that natural-faced chicness then? College is about education, not football, and definitely not finding a mate, but these are important things, these things matter, these help you reassess and find your place in a world, in The South; they help you deem yourself bridal material or the kind of girl who needs to commit herself to grad school.
I’m a really independent person, but being on your own in the Grove just isn’t right. The camaraderie is validating in a way—I’m in college and making friends and having just a good old Mississippi sort of time. But I’m not sure I totally get the Grove, though I know it’s the best pregame environment Tailgater Monthly and I have ever experienced. Oxford is a mecca of social agendas and personal connections, which I’m sure I would know how to appreciate if they were something I had any experience with. I grew up hating the ideas of cotillions, soirees, and other means for entirely regular young people to entertain the beliefs that they are anything but regular. So now, in a place where I should probably be reevaluating and discovering the grace of such things, it’s hard for me to do so.
The Grove is one of these places. Plenty of people covering its acreage believe themselves better than the opposing team, its fans in their ill-fitting jeans and graphic T-shirts, because of the classiness of Oxford. This is OLE MISS, the most beautiful, the happiest, the Greekest, the wildest. Yeah, dickhead, maybe your team is going to come out on top, but no team beats the Grove. It always wins. Your season is going to pass. My easy social grace and classiness aren’t. A famous shirt for sale in the Ole Miss bookstore reads: “We’re not snobs. We’re just better than you.”
These beliefs are convoluted. Mississippi really isn’t better than anybody when you look at the statistics: #1 rates of “rural” STDs, #1 rate of obesity and morbid obesity, #2 rate of diabetes cases, stereotypically common instances of lynching and confederate sympathy. Being from the Deep South, not just a transplant inside of it, I know how it feels to be accused of these things without having any connection to them. I know the anger, the hurt, the embarrassment to yourself, your family, and the place that you love. But this knowledge is also what fuels my detest of the social elitism to which so many deep southerners feel themselves entitled. In a place of bad statistics, assumptions of intolerance, and lots of whiskey, Oxford and the Grove combat these things with proper etiquette, chivalry, and mimosas. And pearls.
Despite my own irritation with high southern society, I mourn the Grove. I miss it less than most people, but I mourn it as one who mourns a charming, dignified relative they never really knew. I live in Alabama, and the outcome of football season has my state and its loyal fans in an earnest tizzy. When I don’t understand their emotions about it, I am reminded snidely that I go to OLE MISS and that I don’t know a lick about football. I cling to what I do know about football season then: the food, the drinks, the “classiness,” and the attitude. I mourn the Grove because it should be important to me, not necessarily because it is.
Upperclassmen laugh and say it will be.