21 February 2016
Homelessness - Part II "Never Going Back to My Old School"
If you haven't read it, or want to better understand the context of this post, please read Part I of this series, here.
My first semester in college was the most exciting time of my life. Not necessarily the best, or the most fun, but everything was new and scary and possibilities seemed absolutely limitless. Regardless of how tethered one remains to their family, it is the most independence and responsibility you're likely to have encountered yet in your life. I still get strange shivers and butterflies when I hear some of the music I listened to during those first few days and weeks, or even when I just think of what my dorm room looked like.
It didn't take me long to make new friends, and my friends from my freshman dorm were some of the best friends I ever had in my life. We had some great fun together, and made a lot of memories. I think there were seven of us who all pledged the same fraternity, and along with two or three guys from the dorm next door, we formed the core of the largest pledge class our house had had in many years.
It's important for me to explain that I attended a small northeastern college that was not that much bigger than my high school. Anyone whose experience of college fraternities comes from their experience at a large college or university where 10% of the men were members of fraternities is not going to completely understand what fraternity life was like at my college, where as many as 65 or 70% of the men were fraternity members. For most of my time in college, there were 12 fraternities and approximately 1,100 men on campus. Frat guys at my school were not all entitled douchebags (anymore so than most of the students at my small northeastern college were in general). There were popular houses that were rather discriminating in who they chose to extend invitations to, but they didn't interest me much. There was the "rich" house, the "football" house, the "slightly less conformist athlete" house, and the "drunken slobs". And then there were several flavors of more "mixed bag" houses, which were clearly more interesting to me. But one place was full of really interesting guys of all backgrounds, ethnicities and nationalities, and they were most all friendly and welcoming. Pretty early on, I figured out that was where I wanted to be.
This is where my new friends and I found our home, and it was the place where I felt the most comfortable to be myself that I had ever known. Our guys were weird, and kind, and funny, and we had to be the only house on campus that was more ethnically diverse than the campus as a whole. That fraternity house was a spiritual home to me as much as a physical home, and it was more my home than my parents' homes were for the next several years. I discovered myself in that house, and how I related to other people. I discovered amazing new ideas, and some of my greatest joys and pains. I found hope in seeing a diverse group of guys work together towards common goals, and we worked out our differences as adults, in ways that I'm still proud of today, and in ways I wish more people could in the wider world.
Anyone who knows me could tell you that I am not a "joiner" by nature. Some people come to a new school and join a dozen clubs, and they might end up actively participating in a few of them. When I join a group, I only do so if I'm prepared to go "all in" and pour my heart into it. In my four years of college, I think I only joined three clubs: Radio Station (which I participated in all four years), College Bowl, and my fraternity. I joined because I believed in my friends in the house, I believed in the openness of these particular guys towards others outside of the fraternity, and as corny as this sounds, I believed in the ideals that this particular fraternity was founded upon. I would have had a hard time reconciling myself with a fraternity with a racist and exclusionary past that had to be dragged kicking and screaming into the modern world. As ugly as fraternity culture is at many schools, our house was never those things, and I have no shame whatsoever about my association with my fraternity or the men I spent those four years of my life with.
I guess my enthusiasm showed right away, because my pledge brothers elected me pledge class president, and that was the first of six consecutive semesters where I served as an officer of the fraternity, relinquishing responsibility only in my last semester, as was traditional in our house. I was elected president as a sophomore, which still ranks among the most honored I've ever felt, and I put more effort into growing and improving our house and our standing on campus than I put into my studies at times.
Because our pledge class was so large, we came to transform the house in our image. I know that a few of the guys who were seniors when we were sophomores didn't like some of the changes we made and some of the potential pledges we rushed to the house, but as I saw then, and learned more over time, that is simply the nature of clubs and groups. In my junior and senior years, we brought in two more large pledge classes full of guys who I really liked and felt would continue the membership of the fraternity for years to come in the vein that we had established.
But as I said above, that is not the nature of clubs and groups. Just as my class had irked the older guys when we started to assert our control over the direction of the fraternity, so did many guys in my class start to feel a bit alienated as the newer guys came into their own. This was especially true of the ones who identified more with the older brothers when we came in. I was always more inclined to look towards the future, and I tended to identify more with the younger guys who I'd had a hand in bringing into the house, so I didn't really feel displaced as I approached graduation. What I felt, unfortunately, was scared that I was losing my home and my friends and my comfort zone. Just when I had really figured out how to be a college student, too.
I knew that even after graduation I'd be back to visit, but I came back a lot. Too much. At least once a month, often for three-day weekends, I'd come back to visit and see my friends. I was living at home with my parents, working temp jobs, and reading a lot. Mostly, it was pretty boring, especially in comparison to my college years where there was always a friend a shout away to hang out with. Some people I knew were anxious to graduate and get their lives started, but I was never, ever, anxious to leave college. I had everything I wanted right there.
Most of the first year felt pretty natural, but as time went by, I felt less and less a part of the group. A few events took place in the summer a year after my graduation that changed things forever. Firstly, the fraternity was forced to move to a new house because they did not have enough members to fill the large house we'd had for the previous forty-something years. There was a sorority that could more than easily fill it (there were only six sororities on campus, and their memberships were much larger on average than the fraternities), and they had a much smaller house just off-campus, so we switched. The new house had actually been the original house when our fraternity was founded in the 1930s, but it was completely new to me and everyone else. To alumni like me, there was no "home" connection, and it helped bring into sharper focus that it was time for me to move on.
Also, the brotherhood had changed. By this time, only the seniors were guys that I'd lived with, and the sophomores weren't even in college at the same time I was. The bonds with the remaining close friends I had were lesser than their bonds with the brothers they still saw every day. The same thing had happened with me as I'd grown through college, and it was now happening to them, and I was just an old fossil who showed up for a party every few weeks. There were several times that I was painfully reminded that they were "brothers" to one another, and I was no longer one of them. I've never been known to take a hint well, or quickly, especially when it would mean acknowledging a painful truth. There was no single event that marked the end, just a series of a few visits where I felt less and less welcome and at home.
This ending began my long period of travelling and moving that has continued to the present day. From the time I moved out of the fraternity house, I moved at least once in every calendar year except one over the next 11 years. When I wrote Part I of this series, I had recently moved to my fourth city in the previous three years. In the three years since, I've moved twice more, thankfully in the same metro area, but it's still hard to establish a home when you keep moving to new houses. It becomes even more painful when you have to uproot your children in doing so.
To be continued in Part III "I've Been Everywhere, Man".