A few weeks ago a happy experience reminded me of good times and the good things in my life. It also reminded me to be thankful for the people that keep me grounded and otherwise have given me cause to look back at college as more than just an alcohol-fueled five years (yes, I took a victory lap and it was glorious) that helped make me stronger on all fronts. College really was a place to make life-long bonds that make you want to keep track of where people are and what they are doing even if you can’t physically be there for them.
A little backstory for all of you. Believe it or not, I wasn’t born as an uber-confident and self-assured individual. Various insecurities (and we all have them) led me to befriend kids (around the middle school years) that were dominant personalities only looking for validation and thus didn’t give respect to get it. Always a nice kid; making friends wasn’t the problem. Making good friends that had my best interests at heart was another story. And in high school, even as a member of athletic teams (that actually had cuts, unlike now where everyone gets a trophy today) there wasn’t a mutual respect that led me to feel comfortable as the outgoing individual I knew I could be.
That personal struggle made it difficult as a growing dude moving through puberty with parents in a broken marriage and three sisters (no male role models outside of father). Feeling less-than amongst your guy friends made talking to girls a monumental task. Needless to say, my awkward stage may have ended early to mid-20s (no joke, I’m still pretty weird even though I’m awesome). Changing schools between 10th and 11th grade is always interesting and proved to be a positive move in the end. However, college always was going to be a different beast. For all the study skills learned in high school, I was just never that kid that was good with tests. Make me write a paper and I will knock it out of the park. Make me study for a test and it either won’t happen or it will and I won’t retain any of the information. Hell, I had people that took notes FOR ME in college and I still didn’t study for tests. Ridiculous, right?
So with all the different issues a kid can go through the biggest one in college and in general, really, is making new friends and feeling like you belong in a particular community. Early on, a group of about 10 kids merged from two main dorms to form an initial bond that seemed palpable. So when most of the group pledged a fraternity, it was assumed that most everyone would go the same route. After some back and forth, every kid except one went to the same frat. I was on the outside looking in. One of three kids stuck doing our own thing through the rush weeks and pledge parties and mixers and events. The weekends were a dead period over about 6 weeks that we didn’t look forward to over the years. Even as new classes of friends rolled through it wasn’t enough to keep from feeling left out.
Even as the years of college sped through and intercollegiate athletics became important enough to me that my social life wasn’t what I wanted it to be, that one guy that pledged a different fraternity regularly reached out. And from time to time we would rage with the best of them. But the bro didn’t question why I still hung out with a group of guys that I had been close with all of college. Hell, he fully supported it because the guys treated me like I was one of them anyways. Most kids outside the club thought I was an active. There weren’t any real perks to that end, but there was a sense of belonging that I craved.
Fast forward to an 8th semester of college that included many close calls with grades and potential dismissals, and for some reason I was under the impression that in my last year of sports as a team captain it was in my best interests to consider pledging a fraternity. I was considering being a dirty pledge (one that didn’t meet the grade requirements- though my grades would later raise above the necessary threshold). All the old friends that I had known for 4 years and looked up to came in to make their pitch (whether there was great effort in it or not) to join their brotherhood. And naturally the lone member of the rival group (if rivalries were something that involved two groups that didn’t have much in common) came to offer me a bid in their rush class. I made the decision to rush and told this lone friend that I wasn’t going to rush at all. I lied. I couldn’t man up and tell him the truth. And it was something that ate away at me all the while.
I was told that there was a hierarchy of duty, and that family and education came right before duty to the club. I was fine with that. But I added a caveat that athletics would also take precedent. Through all the different club rituals that I still have never divulged, as a kid that grew up with really bad asthma, the historically bad weather in the Ohio Winter eventually pneumonia caught up with me. I was in the hospital for three nights and these “brothers” came to get me out early to go to big-little night. My “big” was a best friend of mine that I lived with and the “activity” involved me sharing beers with said dude. Really? I need to risk getting sick again to drink a 12-pack with the guy I live with? Uh, negative.
Time passed and I felt worse and the winter got colder. They’d haze us because it was what was done to them. There were younger, nerdy fucks that talked down to me like I wasn’t on their level. Seriously, one dude look like the blonde version of the cartoon Inspector Gadget. But I wanted to belong. So I let shit go. Like the time one of the older brothers slapped me in the face for talking during some lame speech. Also, said brother was a fucking roommate of mine. He got his later that year when my friend and other roommate left him bloody and crying like the little bitch that he still is (yes, there’s no love lost there).
Naturally, I had second thoughts. The guys were upset. Some pledge brothers came to try to talk me out of it. The particular pledge class was about to lose something like 7 of 12 pledges (already a small class even by our small school’s standards). So they really didn’t want to lose me. And then I made my decision to put me first. It was necessary for my grades, my sport, my team, and myself. And it lead to a backlash. I lost a pair of my car keys (had a spare) in the parking lot next to the club a night or two before quitting. After a morning of classes I walked to the parking lot to find my car parked on an angle at the bottom of the lot on the hill. There was ice and snow and I was not happy. One active helped me as others talked shit from their windows. Got in my car and drove home. The deadbolt on my door had been unscrewed and my room had been trashed. My door was written on and someone pissed on my bed. Some friends, huh? I threatened to have the cops come through and my keys were finally returned. There was continued bullshit from the annoying, Napoleonic roommate for weeks on end while several actives would talk shit after I walked by on the quad (because they were tough). Some of the friends from the first few years understood my decision, but only a handful (the ones I still talk to) showed any support.
The day after I quit I walked into the house of the fraternity I turned down. Instead of turning me away and telling me to fuck off (and rightfully so) they welcomed me with open arms. The next year and a few months of college were what I really wanted to experience in the first place. A group of guys (that would eventually lose their charter for really stupid reasoning because our college was and is pathetic-but really a fraternity) that knew was weird and awkward and totally ridiculous sometimes, and yet they didn’t treat me like shit when I didn’t do what they wanted. Bros that had no agenda and made me feel equal.
I think about how dumb it was that I didn’t have that kind of self-confidence in the first place. There’s regrets all over that I have but you learn and move on and understand that some people just suck. Eventually most of those kids saw how happy I was and how well I was doing and they felt stupid (whether they said it to me or not). And more importantly, I found a group that supported me and was into the crazy ideas for parties and endless kegs and football games (even though we basically missed the entire first half) and every other shenanigan you can think of. So every time I have the chance to go back and see those guys at weddings I take them. And I thank them for instilling the confidence necessary to be myself as well as what it really means to be a part of a brotherhood. And most importantly, I thank that one bro for being the best friend I could have asked for.