Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Sandman's Night in a Sorority House

My friend Max joined a sorority last school year. At first, this baffled me. This girl majors in environmental science, converts Fahrenheit to Celsius in her head, comes to Write Club every week intoxicated on the joy of complex statistics computer programs, and... she wants to be in a sorority?! A couple of months ago, I read a piece of her writing. It was full of depth, psychological complexity, and darkness . In my world, sorority girls don't write things like that. They don't even know things like that exist.

Yup. All my stereotypes... kicked right in the balls! I've been trying to reconcile it all ever since.

For months, Max had been telling me she wanted to hang out with me outside of Write Club. “Come stay the night with me! Let’s study Russian together. And have a Castle marathon!” (She’s ADDICTED to the TV show Castle, and wanted me to see why she loves it so much.) I kept telling her I would, but the truth is, I was SCARED. Because staying the night with her would entail entering the inner territory of a sorority.

See, I have a very strange perception of sorority girls. It’s pretty much in keeping with the way sorority girls are portrayed in the movie Pumpkin. Not only have I been severely guilty of stereotyping sorority girls (salon hair, ditzy, Coach purses, glittery manicures, short shorts, dumb jock boyfriends), but I am also intimidated by them (prettier than me, more feminine than me, way cooler than me). I think this bizarre pairing of scorn/intimidation goes back to my high school years, when I had an angry emo hunch that I was smarter than the pretty, air-headed blond girls who had once shoved grass down my throat in elementary school, and who were now having their boyfriends kick my boyfriends’ asses. My public school experiences caused me to permanently associate mainstream beauty with cruelty and ignorance. Ever since then, I’ve made it a somewhat ridiculous political stance to be beautiful in my own, anti-mainstream way. Like somehow mainstream beauty will notice and, I don’t know, feel severely flipped off or something.

So sorority girls... In my world, they are just an older version of those girls who wounded my pride again and again in public school. Hence, my reluctance to do this Castle marathon night. But I’ve been trying to make 2011 the year of trying things I’ve been afraid to try, or things I’ve snobbishly turned my nose up at. So several weeks ago, I at last agreed.

On a Saturday night, Max and I entered her sorority house through the side door she always uses, my bags, pillow, and blankets filling our arms. We walked down hallways with bedroom doors decorated in glitter, stars, hearts, crowns, and all kinds of things, each labeled with the names of the two girls who live in each room. A pretty girl in a t-shirt, sweats, and long side-ponytail passed us. She didn’t bite or growl or anything. She just smiled and said hi. We went into Max’s room and dumped my stuff onto her bunk bed. I looked around the tiny room, in which she and her roommate have packed more stuff than could properly fit into the most impressive of clown cars. On the walls there was... some pretty interesting artwork. Intelligent looking artwork. Creative and experimental artwork. Not the kind of artwork I expected to find in a sorority bedroom.

I had already asked Max if she could give me a tour of the house. Scared as I was, I was also intensely curious. What HAPPENS inside a sorority house? What is it LIKE inside their world? So we embarked on a tour. I felt pretty self-conscious. One, I am nearly a decade older than most of these girls, so I felt, well, old. Two, I was in need of a haircut. I had Lego Man hair. Short and entirely ugly compared to all the long, flowing hair on all the girls we passed in the house. Three, I was wearing my usual clothes. Thrift store jeans and an indie t-shirt showing a cartoon teddy bear crushed under a giant waffle. The girls in this house were wearing brand names, the latest styles. I imagined them thinking, “Oh, GOD, what has Max brought home?! Ewww.” But really, the girls were doing their own thing, not noticing me at all until Max introduced me to them.

The sorority house was HUGE. We walked through all kinds of hallways, the walls of which were decorated with bulletin boards with photos of the sorority members, labeled with titles reading “A Night in Las Vegas” or “Yoplait Breast Cancer Awareness Week”. One hallway had big frames with individual photos of past years’ sorority members. When we got to the frame for this year’s members, I pointed out to Max that only one girl in the sorority has short hair. “Hmmmm, I never noticed that,” she said, shrugging. I think I could have said, “Only one girl has blue eyes,” or, “Only one girl is wearing a necklace,” and she would have responded in the same way. (The things I obsess over are not necessarily the things others obsess over!)

Next she showed me the communal bathrooms on each floor, which were pretty nice. Very clean, perhaps recently remodeled, with cubicles for each girl’s toiletries. Each bathroom had a boombox playing the same kind of music I hear every time I go to my gym. The boomboxes are kept on all day long. (“Comes in handy if you’re the sort who doesn’t like other people hearing you poop!” Max told me with a grin.) The walls of all the bathroom stalls were pink. On the mirrors, study schedules and house events were posted. One bathroom had the words “Beau & Arrow” written across the mirror in pink shoe polish, along with pink and white hearts. (Leftover from Valentine’s Day, I think.) Next to it, a handwritten drawing of a sunshine with a big heart in the middle read “Sending ZTA love rays your way!”

Then we visited the kitchen. Oh, the kitchen! I don’t know how those girls stay so thin with all that free food available to them. I think I’d be obese in about three weeks if I lived there. As we raided the refrigerator for string cheese and juice, a pretty girl with long red hair walked in and told us about how traumatized she was feeling by a super sad movie she had just watched. I was somehow amazed to find that this girl talked to me as if I were a normal human being, just like her. I was even more surprised when the girl talked about youth group and orgasms in the same sentence just a few minutes later. (She’s in youth group AND she believes in orgasms!?! How cool is that?!?)

And that was the end of the tour. Max and I spent the rest of the night up in her room, watching Castle episodes until the wee hours of the morning. (I’m not a TV watcher, but I can see why Max likes the show. That Beckett is pretty damned cool.) It turned out to be a really fun night.

My overall impression of the sorority: The girls there were really nice. And the ones we talked to were really smart. These girls do a lot of good work in their community, and they support each other in a way that most college kids don’t. (For example, every girl is assigned “a big” and “a little”... an older girl who mentors, and a younger girl to mentor. And they check in with each other regularly.) On a more shallow note... (and really, my fears are more shallow than the mainstream beauty that I claim to despise so much)... not all of the girls were gorgeous. And the girls who were beautiful were not necessarily beautiful in a mainstream kind of way. (Max’s roommate, for example, reminded me a lot of Tori Amos.)

So now, when I tell my own students about what to expect in a few years when they go to college, will I have nicer things to say about sororities? I probably will. I think I definitely will.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

The Mr. White Notebook

In elementary school, my music teacher was Mr. White. His name was fitting, since that was the color his hair had turned. He was a short, penguin-like man. He wore button-up shirts in dark mauves and periwinkles, and he always had gigantic sweat stains under his armpits. We couldn't help but notice, since he was always doing "conductor arms" along with the children's songs he played us on records or cassettes. His facial expression was always very intense behind his gigantic glasses. He kind of scared us a little. That man took music SERIOUSLY!

Only recently have I realized that Mr. White must have been the most influential teacher I had in elementary school. I have found myself relying on a creative exercise that he taught me when I was only six years old. Here's how I remember it: He would hand out huge pieces of white drawing paper and a pack of crayons to each of us. Then he would play various classical musical pieces, instructing us to draw whatever the music made us think of. We could draw absolutely anything the music evoked in our imaginations. What was important was to truly listen... to connect with the music and let it carry our minds off into its world. I remember where my imagination went during those exercises. It was a place entirely free of walls or limitations. Time and physical laws of the universe stopped existing. I stopped thinking in traditional shapes and symbols. My crayons drew magical wonderlands. When music class was over, I didn't want to leave.

Now I've been trying to find that place of creative freedom again, but this time with writing. I've been having difficulties allowing my current writing project complete freedom. So I've started a separate writing notebook that I'm calling The Mr. White Notebook. Around midnight, when the impish enchantment of late night darkness starts beckoning to me, I put my headphones on. I play haunting music by a Bulgarian women's choir or avant-garde punk music by the Russian group Auktyon, and I put my pen to the paper. I pretend I'm in Mr. White's music class, but instead of ME passing Dorothy-in-Oz like into the world of the music, it's my characters. The creatures and landscapes my characters see in the sounds of the music have nothing to do with the story I'm writing about them. What happens in The Mr. White Notebook is an act of delving into my characters' dream worlds, not into the facts of their daily lives. The writing that results is not necessarily something that will be included directly in my actual writing project, but it does give me a sea of magical words and imagery to dip my net into when I get stuck in writing the scenes from my characters' lives. I think The Mr. White Notebook has become my secret passage out of the "eternal dawn" that Arkadii Dragomoschenko speaks of in the quote below...

"The writer dreams of night while being sentenced to an omnipotent and eternal dawn, when even the banality of a shadow can't relieve the impersonal nothingness of the surroundings." -Arkadii Dragomoschenko