I was still at Standards, still being reprimanded for the lack-of-length in my short gold-sequined romper, and I was walking out the door, already imagining how deep a breath I’d take once I left the room and was alone, on my own and able to hide out in my apartment, when suddenly I said, without feeling like I was saying it, “I don’t think I’ll be here next semester.”
“Okay,” the head of standards said. “Sure, you’ll just need to sign some paperwork.” I hadn’t turned to look at them yet when she added, “It’s no big deal.”
I’d thought about it before: INACTIVE. Still a member, just one who is too stressed or inpatient-bulimic or financially impaired to be in the sorority for eight semesters straight. And here they were telling me it’s okay, condoning my need for privacy and my perpetual want for something greater than this. But I got home and changed my mind. I would be letting down the friend who had rushed me and loved her own four years so much, and I would be leaving behind so many friends and paid-for hot meals, and relinquishing my year to live in the sorority house.
But it’s no big deal, she had said. It would be no big deal to go do something new. Why step aside for just one semester when I had three more waiting bright and untouched?
I arranged to sign that paperwork without telling anybody. My fingers might have shaken when I reached to borrow a pen. We’ll see you around, she was saying. It’s money, money’s hard, we understand. (But money is just the part of it you can describe; you can’t spell out to this one girl your shame and disappointment and still all the fun you have had, and how loyal you’ll feel a year from now, and how easy it will be to say you disassociated, dropped out, but how hard it will always still be to say why.)
There is no standard college experience. People can tell you that to go to Ole Miss is to dive deep into a pool of Polos and sundresses and put yourself on a scaffold to be chosen or set aside by sororities and fraternities and those who look like they’re in charge. People can also tell you that Greek life is blown out of proportion here, that it doesn’t make up as much of campus as the pamphlets and the party pics might show. People can tell you that it’s sad you couldn’t afford the tiny liberal arts schools that you got in to, and they’re so sorry that you’ll have to make the best of it here.
But no one can tell you that you’ll be drunk during your 8 AM religion class the second week of freshman year, or that you’ll see your boyfriend for the first time in Bishop Hall Auditorium and that that moment will mean more than any fraternity party, or that the girls you go on spring break with aren’t going to be your best friends. No one can tell you that the pearls you don’t own would make your game-day outfit in the Grove look better, or that you’ll be sent to standards once for being yourself and once for trying too hard not to be. No one can predict that your best friend will be a boy from the bookstore where he’ll later help you get a job, or that you won’t ever buy an Ole Miss t-shirt. No one will be correct about which English professors are best. They won’t be right about who you will do what with. No one will know that you’ll prefer the lighting in Bryant Hall to the library, or that your fake ID will be taken up at a bar no one ever even thinks about going to. No one can tell you which sorority will want you, or which one you might wish you had pledged.
And no one can tell you that you’ll leave, or that you’ll do it sooner than you have to. In the summer, I moved to New York after I got a part-time job at that one thin glossy magazine that comes out every week. It felt good and it was hard. I made a few real friends, reconnected with others, went to museums, spent too much money, and stayed in bed a lot binge-watching Friday Night Lights. And instead of going back to Mississippi in August, I didn’t.
Because now it’s November, I’m a senior in college, and I’m not at Ole Miss anymore. I’d thought forever about studying abroad, knew it was probably bound to happen if I could get the financial factors straight and if I could stand the anti-south of New York City, and when I looked at the catalog of my available exchange programs and then compared it to the map I’ve always had across my big dreaming wet red heart, I chose Greece.
People ask you—if you don’t choose to study in Spain or France or Italy or the Netherlands or the UK—why this country? Why Greece? I don’t have a reason like the Greek-American students here do, unless things like art and tzatziki could be reasons, so I usually tell them my dad lived here once (true, but far-flung and separate from me) or that in the fourth grade, Hannah from my Catholic school elementary class got to spend the summer touring the islands, and Athens, and brought me a shirt back from the 2004 Olympics. And it was the first time I thought, away, away, let’s go, and the first time I felt that same jealousy that freshman Mary Marge felt while going through rush and secretly internet stalking her private-college friends’ school catalogs. I would make the best of what I had been given. I would wait and take my turn to go and see and do.
But few Ole Miss students study abroad for whole semesters. And everyone has questions if you do.
Why would you want to miss football season? Won’t it be hard for your boyfriend? I can come to other football games, and my boyfriend can suck it up.
But you won’t get to live with your pledge class in the house. What about the friends that last a lifetime? I have exactly seven friends from my sorority with the potential to last a lifetime. Three graduated, one went to nursing school after sophomore year, and the three that remain will still be there in January. They will get dinner with me my first night back. They will tell me what has changed for them, and I will feel what has changed for me. (Not some grand study-abroad-soul-searching, because I get enough introspection done on a regular drive home.) Just the facts: my boyfriend graduated and left Oxford. My minor is not what it was. I don’t have a place to live yet. I need to re-memorize bar specials. I left with the full knowledge of being back for my final semester, hopefully with some new experiences if not wisdom under my belt. And to be separate, fully my own, not a representative of anything but the work my parents put into me and the things that I have learned, and the really stupid shit I’ve done on nights that turned to mornings.
But I’m learning the Greek language now, sitting in a foreign classroom full of wide-eyed study abroad students, many of whom are freshmen and pimply and partying like crazy (not considered underage in this country, of course), and I look at them and think, Could that really have been me so recently? Could I have been the Friday morning straggler, makeup smeared under my eyes and laughing at the stories others tell of me, how I danced like this with my manicured fingers forming that big Δ, or kissed such and such guy in front of so many people’s cameras; me, the one getting high-fived by people who look so different in the daylight?
But aside from the flickers of nostalgia—Can you believe it either? How long I have written this; how much it has changed? Did you think this is how it would happen?—they are simply other students learning Greek with me. An impractical language, you know, unless you plan to come back here and stay awhile.
And you know what else? It’s hard. The P’s look like R’s and the S’s look like O’s. It’s a complex thing, of course, but more complicated the more I figure out, instead of vice versa. And why not? It’s difficult and impractical and ancient and irregular, but it’s something I could never learn otherwise, something I’d never experience if I didn’t turn myself over to it, resign myself to the fact that this is what people do here. This is how to know and experience it all, as best as you can for the time you’re here, this is how to make your place.
Much more than just an alphabet arbitrarily aligned.