That Time You Plugged the Drain -- How being a sorority advisor (almost) broke me and also saved me
It’s not like I’m spontaneous. It’s more like when you’re stuck in a whirlpool, you latch onto the first sign of rescue.
I was sitting in my tiny classroom at the preschool where I was teaching a literacy-based fine arts class. It was near the end of the day and I was transferring watercolors inspired by “The Rainbow Fish” from the drying rack to take-home folders when I got the phone call.
But before we get any further, you need a backstory.
Like many impactful moments in my life, my decision to get pregnant just sort of happened.
It was post-Katrina New Orleans, a bustling period when everyone was either starting over or starting fresh. Homes were either remodeled or built new. Jobs were reignited or born. It was as if the storm had washed away whatever excuses had always stood in the way and left nothing but newfound energy among the wreckage.
In recovery, that’s often how it goes. Opportunity sits you down, pulls up a bar stool and has a heart-to-heart. You either listen, or you get caught in a whirlpool of your own making and go straight down the storm drain.
Evidence of this was everywhere.
“Hey, how’s it going?” I might ask someone I hadn’t seen in months.
“Great! I decided to go back to school for that Masters in Nautical Archeology I’d always wanted.”
“I quit my job and started my own bike courier business.”
“I’m moving to Nepal to make beeswax candles for the monasteries.”
And my answer was always a startled, “Good for you!” while secretly envious of their courage to just jump feet first into their private passions.
At the time, I was working the type of early adulthood job one would expect. I was honing my copywriting skills, mastering the art of a killer press release, and learning the tenacious task of appeasing entitled alumnae while moving forward with progress. If you’ve ever worked under the stare of old biddies, you know that’s a delicate dance. For many, the private school where I worked was an oasis from the humdrum of hurricane-recovery insurance arguments and the drudergy of rebuilding a city’s infrastructure -- so comforting that I’d almost forgotten that the week before Hurricane Katrina, I was on the verge of quitting.
It had been almost seven years since I’d sat in the colosseum at my college graduation, pumped with ambition, mentally composing a checklist list of the extraordinary accomplishments I’d achieve. But had I accomplished any of them? My checklist was getting pretty dusty. I’d started having daydreams where I’d see myself in circles, one practical job after the other, all of them in a swirl of procrastination, putting off the greatest question that had been circling the drain since graduation. A question that, if unanswered, would take with it any hope of me finally knowing what the hell I really, really wanted out of life.
So during the recovery when the idea of a baby came up in conversation, something I’d always wanted but hadn’t tried, I said, “Sure!”
There is nothing in the world like a baby’s gaze into your eyes when you’re feeding him, nothing like the warmth that rushes up your arm and melts your heart when her tiny hand clutches yours as you’re walking home from her first day of school, and nothing compares to the giggles, squeals, and hysterical laughter of joy charmed by the simplest of pleasures, like a wind-up toy, Christmas morning, or the tickle monster. My heart moved to the beat of all of this and it stopped beating whenever I left any of it for too long. It’s why I didn’t go back to my job after my baby was born, why I started copywriting at home, and why I followed my children to their preschool and taught three and four-year-olds.
But when I answered my phone that afternoon in my preschool classroom, I hadn’t anticipated it would lead me back to whirlpools and storm drains.
The woman on the other end of the call was rather frantic. You’d think she was talking about impoverished children in Uganda the way she was going on and on about how desperate the situation was. But she wasn’t talking about impoverished children. She was talking about a sorority.
What in seven hells was she calling me for?
“I got your number from the online database and saw that your address is just eight blocks from the chapter’s house.”
Shit. Why do I complete surveys when I’m bored?
“You mentioned you’d be open to volunteering…”
I did?! Why the hell’d I do that?
“I heard you were a really good recruitment chair back in the day…”
Well, while you’re on the subject...
I could feel my ego growing, suddenly colliding with the phone beside my ear as she went on and on about my fantastic leadership and planning skills, way back in 1998.
...but what’s this “recruitment,” white girl? What happened to rush?
“Would you like to meet for coffee?”
I scanned the table of rainbow fish. They looked more like rainbow victims.
The drain plug shifted just a little and unbeknownst to me, the water began to inch down.
Sales pitches for volunteer work are never honest, especially when the position is a sorority recruitment advisor.
Holy hell! There was a crap ton of paperwork, budgets, and a whole myriad of risk management scenarios that I had to read and sign-off on. There were also about a gazillion meetings and subcommittee meetings and workshops and retreats. On any given Tuesday, Saturday, or Saturday through Sunday, I’d throw something in the crockpot, stick a Disney DVD in the player, and kiss my husband on the cheek before heading out. I’d traded my leggings for fraying jeans, my tunics for fitted tops, and my old sneakers for wedged boots. I might have been sold a bill of goods, but I felt young again, liberated from Mickey Mouse and mac ‘n’ cheese. I heard my name again. No one called me Mommy or Miss anything. And maybe I felt a little cool too, something I had pretty much given up on a month after my youngest had been born and I, with Baby Girl in tow, went to a Girls’ Night In and someone offered me Skinny Girl.
“What’s that?” I asked, latching my baby to my nipple. “Like a drink enhancer?”
My friend frowned and patted my head.
“Poodle, it’s a diet margarita Bethenny Frankel from ‘Real Housewives’ makes.”
“What’s ‘Real Housewives’?” I asked.
Honest to God, I didn’t know anything about the cat fighting gal pals or the prosthetic legs flinging across tables at Le Cirque.
“Holy crap,” someone from the kitchen yelled. “You have got to lay off the ‘Thomas the Train’.”
And so, killing it as a recruitment advisor, I laid off the “Thomas the Train” and leaned into something I hadn’t felt in a long time: purpose, knowledge, and authority. The logistics may have had more red tape than in the 90s, but the naturally competitive energy, diehard winner, and motivator within me had resurfaced. We had a killer recruitment. (Hell, I even called it recruitment!) I was beloved and admired. I was the mom-type they could talk to, the big sister they’d always wanted, and someone older, who didn’t judge them when they dropped f-bombs or let slip that they’d spent the weekend playing beer pong. (I’d spent the weekend building a toddler bed.) My daughter adored them, and they were even growing on my husband, who noticed a pep in my step.
Then shit hit the fan, splattered everywhere, and I heard a voice coming up from the drain.
“We have a problem.”
I was on the phone with my advisor. (Yes, advisors have advisors.) Mine was a classic do-gooder, the kind of person who’s usually right but her delivery is so snooty it makes you wish she’d step in shit every once in a while. She was positively manic about rules and said “best practices” ad nauseum. So whatever was “the problem” was probably something truly lame.
“There was drinking on Bid Night.”
Isn’t there always drinking on Bid Night?
Actually, there often is, but it’s not supposed to happen.
When I left the well-organized, risk-managed celebration at the bowling alley on the Bid Day in question, I knew full well they’d be yucking it up later that night. What eighteen-year-old wants to celebrate with chicken nuggets and rented shoes when her social life just went up a notch? Was underage drinking illegal? Yes, but so is jaywalking. Was underage drinking dangerous? Yes, but so is war and plenty of underage kids go to war.
But somewhere along the way, I guess when all the red tape was added, it became a major no-no to drink on the night a bid was given. It had become some supreme sorority law across the land that I was well aware of, but I knew it was begging to be broken by every chapter in the spray-tanned kingdom. Only my girls’ chapter had a snitch, a member owed $100, whose vendetta involved bringing the chapter down via evidence to the Dean of Students of a throwdown on Bid Night at the bar one block from campus.
This is when I should have bowed out gracefully, but I’ve never been that graceful.
My phone rang more than ever during the investigation. (Yes, there was an actual investigation, like “Law and Order: Special Sorority Unit.”) Almost every member was guilty, and certainly every member on my team. They’d told me, but I wasn’t about to turn them in. The way I saw it, I hadn’t volunteered to be their disciplinarian. My kicks didn’t come from pulling membership. My kicks came from seeing someone with no self-confidence develop into a person who can command a room. Who cared if she did a shot of tequila?
“What do I do?”
“What do I say?”
My girls were genuinely scared, terrified they would be stripped of everything for which they’d worked.
And I answered the same every time. “Just tell the truth. You’ll look worse if you don’t.”
I don’t know why I was selected as the person to entertain the national officers who flew in for the show. And it was just that, a dramatic messy shit show in sorority land. But there I sat, eating an overpriced turkey sandwich and wondering how many of the women sitting across from me had done tequila shots on their Bid Night and were now preparing to question and decide the fate of my girls.
Then one of them said, “I’m gonna make sure I’m scary.”
“Oh, me too,” another said.
“That’s the only way to get them to fess up!” they laughed.
And this is the exact moment when I realized that there is a reason why we pledge sororities when we are eighteen and why we leave them when we are twenty-two. Because should you find yourself in the company of judgemental, catty, bitchy women at the wrong time -- say, when you’re at a crossroads in life and you’re just realizing that ten years as a stay-at-home mom has created a major identity crisis within you -- you go full throttle Bethenny Frankel on their asses.
Get off my jock! And get away from my girls!
Hell hath no fury like a mama bear defending her recruitment team from old biddies getting their jollies by scaring the crap out of some kid who might have snuck a beer in a dive bar -- crap beer at that. She was drinking Natty Light for the love of God. Hadn’t she suffered enough?
So I stopped playing nice. I rolled up my sleeves and did everything I could to save my girls from the mean girls. Only, they weren’t saved. They were all kicked out and so was I. Yes, you now know someone, who as a grown-ass adult was scolded by her sorority’s national officer and asked to resign as an advisor. And I did so with far more conviction than it took for me to become an advisor in the first place. Peace out, bitches!
But just before I got off the phone, I was asked to never talk to my team again.
I’m pretty sure I cackled.
“No,” I said, as if she’d asked me to consider giving up one of my own children to a family of bears.
“Why?” she asked, as if it was unthought of that I wouldn’t see the importance of giving my child to a family of bears.
“Because I’m almost forty and I decide who I talk to,” I answered.
But the truth was I knew the girls, my girls, needed me now more than ever. And if I’m being really honest, I needed them too.
I know enough to know that I was actually a terrible sorority advisor in the sense that I don’t know how to build someone up without getting attached. People screw up. Maybe I did? Maybe I should have turned my girls in, but what good would have come from playing by the rules? The chapter crumbled after the investigation. As member turned against member to save her own neck, it was like a civil war fought in Nordstrom Rack’s spring sales. No one learned anything but whom they could and could not trust and the whole premise of sisterhood and friendship was completely lost.
A few months after my unfortunate second go at sorority life, I quit teaching the class at the preschool. Just as my decision to have children just sort of happened, I suddenly decided to listen to opportunity. Maybe it was when my advice made a difference? Maybe it was when l saw the fruit of my labor in their smiles as strong recruitment numbers rolled in? Or maybe it was when I was rushing to a team meeting in an outfit that was unquestionably, rock solid, vintage-me, and as I glanced at myself in the mirror, I saw the graduate—pumped with ambition, slowly building a checklist list in her head—looking back.
“Plug the drain!” she yelled.
Somewhere in that time of recovery, I admitted to myself that although I loved motherhood and I’d defend to the death my children from a family of bears, I better damn well find a way to keep that graduate close or I’d drown in a slurry of regret.
Two months later I started working on this blog. A magazine needed a voice for a younger generation.
Ha! Take that.
I couldn’t help but consider the irony of being paid to talk to young women for whom I’d been told I was a bad influence.
What should my first column be? Drink better beer and don’t get caught?
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