I remember standing there wondering if I should remove my sweat soaked visor, or apologize for squinting as my eyes adjusted to the room. Like every August I can remember in Alabama, the heat had taken on a life of its own; rising up from the black tar streets of sorority row with a vengeance; rhythmic sprinklers working overtime to water the finely clipped lawns.
I had been walking all morning, my wide eyed rush group behind me like a mother duck leading her young. They looked up to me, these girls. I knew this, and I confess, reveled in it. As their rush counselor I was responsible for taking them to and from the sorority houses lining the University of Alabama campus, answering their questions, and making certain they were where they were supposed to be at all times. I loved every minute of it. But there were a few unpleasant tasks associated with the job; most of these girls were far from home, and with that comes a multitude of issues; not the least of which was being dropped from rush completely. The process lasted a week; each day fresh faced hopefuls would visit the sororities, and each evening chapter room doors all over sorority row would close, voting would begin, and invitations would be sealed in envelopes for distribution the next morning. If a rushee was not invited back by at least one sorority, it was the duty of her Rush counselor to break the news to her. How I dreaded those early morning phone calls. I remember sitting on more than one dorm room bed, holding a weeping girl in my arms, who was absolutely certain that this was the very worst day of her life. I was too young, and immature at the time to believe that she was anything but right about that.
It has always been curious to me the way our brains choose to remember things. People say we file things away deep in the recesses of our minds, but a file requires active searching, a concerted effort on our parts to choose whether to open it or leave it closed up tight and locked. Memory, as I have always experienced it, doesn't seem to work that way. It visits us in random moments; sights, smells, a certain word or phrase, even music on the radio. I hear, or smell, and instantly I remember something I had forgotten; tiny seemingly insignificant parts of a bigger whole that I will most likely never forget.
I don't remember how I was told, or by whom, that I had been summoned by the Panhellenic board. But I do remember my half run/half walk to get there, and even the sound of my tennis shoes slapping the pavement. Panhellenic is the governing board of sorority life, and I recall having the distinct and nauseating feeling that I had been called down to the principal's office. I couldn't imagine what they would want with me, but I certainly was not going to keep them waiting. I don't remember where we met, only that it was one of the women's dorms on campus. I do recall coming in from the blinding sun, blinking away the spots playing before my eyes, and finding myself standing before a group of business like young women seated in chairs placed side by side. I believe there was a table in front of them. I remember I wanted to crawl underneath it. I had not checked a mirror.
If given the opportunity, I would most likely not choose to go back into that room and see it played out before me, although I long to remember the exact words that were said. I think they are important, because they could shed some light on the intentions of the Board, which I believe were honorable, albeit misguided. I can say there was nothing casual about it; the Board took the issue very seriously, and there was absolutely nothing said that could in any way be described as callous or mean spirited. I remember someone using the phrase "potentially volatile," or something like it, and that it must be nipped in the bud.
I only know that when the meeting was over (and it was short; I stood for all of it) I had been given the task of telling one of the girls in my group that she would need to drop out of rush immediately. They told me that she would certainly "not be receiving any invitations back," and that basically the sooner she was gone the better for all involved, including herself. This girl was bright, attractive, and had an absolutely wonderful and infectious personality. She was also African American. And they were worried that if she was not invited to pledge a sorority, that there could be a huge backlash from the black community.
I don't know how the meeting ended, or what, if anything, I may have said. I do know that I was the only person in that room who knew her at all, and I never opened my mouth once to speak up for her. I don't even remember her name. I regret all of that to this day.
I'm not sure if I requested company, or if the Board decided this on their own, but they sent someone to go with me when I met with the girl. I will be eternally grateful for that, although once we sat together, the three of us, it seemed wrong, as though it only emphasized her minority status. I remember hearing her tell us she wasn't interested in the "black" sororities. I recall her explaining this, but I don't think I listened. For some reason I have never thought back on that day without remembering a tear that had run down her cheeks and fallen onto her thigh. It broke my heart in a way I can't fully describe here. Psalm 56:8 tells us that God keeps our tears in a bottle. I didn't know that verse then. It would have been a comfort, as it is to me now. Mostly I remember doing most all of the talking. I distinctly recall thinking I wasn't making any sense; that I was pleading a case I didn't believe in. And I remember the sound of the wall unit air conditioner as it droned on mindlessly like the sound of my voice.
We left her there, crying softly. I did not look back.
The next morning at convocation I was handed the stack of envelopes for each of my girls. I remember seeing a movie once where a young and nervous athlete was told by her coach, "Let me do the worrying for you." I thought about that every time I held the rush packets, heart racing and palms sweating as though I were the rushee and one of the envelopes contained my fate. I confess part of it was my dread at the prospect of having to call one of their rooms. I knew they were sitting by the phone, hoping with all that is in them, that it would be silent one more day.
I cringe to think of the first time I had to call. We had been given a semi "script" as to exactly what to say, as well as how to say it. Basically, we were to be sympathetic, but not overly so. I suppose the thinking was, if we didn't sound like it was the end of the world, the rushee would not think that it was. "Hi Susan. It's Karen." I recall saying that very first time. "I just wanted to let you know that you did not receive any invitations back, and there will be no need for you to come to convocation this morning." I don't remember exactly what she said back to me. I only knew I had done it. I'd stuck to the script. One of the rush counselors pulled me aside a few minutes later. I had been too "cheerful" she told me. I needed to tone it down. I was devastated, and embarrassed.
I vividly remember choosing a seat on the floor, and not in one of the folding chairs they provided. I remember sitting with my back to the wall, the floor cold and dusty under my bare legs. I understand that now, looking back. I think I was hiding. Certainly my back was to the wall. I remember at that moment thinking I hadn't been given a "script" the day before, and wondering how this thought had not dawned on me sooner. I remember the morning sun high enough already to form golden darts on the tile beside my feet. I can still remember the cacophony of chairs scraping the floor and doors being slammed and voices raised and excited at what lay ahead, and the bedlam that came with it all. And then I began to rifle through the packets.
Her packet wasn't empty. Somebody wanted the black girl. And I had sent her away.
I remember my own rush experience in the same bits and pieces kind of way. It's funny to think that we can be one of hundreds, like legos in a box, exactly the same, and yet different, doing and seeing and sharing in precisely the same things, and then coming away from it, having taken with us each something personal and unique to us alone.
I remember a floral green dress my sister wore. I don't remember any dresses I wore.
I vividly remember wishing my hair wouldn't frizz in the heat. I remember looking around at the other girls and thinking I wasn't good enough. I remember looking around at other girls and thinking they would surely never get a bid to a sorority. I remember being judged, and feeling the sting when my envelope was lighter the next morning. And I remember judging, my cupped hand hiding whispers and snickers and all those things that break us far worse than sticks or stones.
I don't know where the black girl went after I left the room. I don't remember her name, and I probably forgot it by the end of Rush week. I remember waking up in a dark, musty dorm room, and thinking how I had already forgotten her face. I recall closing my eyes and trying so hard to see her, and thinking I must be going crazy. Or maybe none of it had happened at all. I lay there keeping a secret I didn't want to keep, but could never share. I got rid of the envelope the way a murderer hides a gun. I felt like a coward, and wrong, and sad. But that was when I wasn't feeling the fear. I spent the week looking behind me, checking and re-checking my door and windows. I was a white girl, and convinced this black girl, who I had once found delightful, was suddenly going to hurt me. I will never forget trying to remember if I'd ever heard her mention having brothers. I remember wishing the phone were closer to my side of the room, should I need to get at it. I thought about leaving, and going home, but I was afraid I'd be followed there. The very thing Panhellenic was trying to prevent happening was about to be visited on me. And I was terrified. And I think I'm most ashamed by those irrational thoughts and feelings than anything else.
No one ever came. The black girl's imaginary brothers never broke through the door, or came into my window like monsters in the night. I was never threatened, or contacted by anyone at all. I didn't need to fear the sweet and unassuming girl who only wanted to be considered, even when we wouldn't give her the chance.
I wonder now if she ever thinks of me, and remembers my face the way I wish I could remember hers. I think she would like me now, and forgive, if I asked her to. It is my prayer (and somehow a belief deep in my heart) that she understood us all even then. Somebody said "When you know better, you do better." I think we know better now, or aspire to, even if the rest of the country would choose to believe otherwise. I do pray they''ll put their laptops away and think before they write about us again, or at least until they know all the facts. It seems to me that judging a group of people based on the actions of one or two is modeling the very behavior they are accusing us of.
I'd like to sit with her again, as friends, and listen this time, instead of talking. Just listen. I'd like to pray with her now, the way I should have done that hot August day so many years ago, and didn't. I'd like to tell her that I was wrong to have left her there, alone, and crying, but how wonderful that our Father in heaven saved each tear like a priceless jewel. Because they were hers. And I'd want her to know that I may have forgotten her name, and even her face, but I have never forgotten the very best part of her. Because it isn't the way a person looks that matters anyway, even a little bit.
I wonder as I write this story- her story- (however it is received, or whatever it accomplishes) if it really matters at all, these long many years later. But I was encouraged to tell it, and felt lead to do so in light of recent events. It was time to bring it to light...even if only to honor a beautiful, but nameless black girl who only wanted what was rightfully hers to begin with.
And that in itself, is reason enough.