I thought I knew who joined fraternities. Good-looking, confident guys who knew exactly where they fit in the food chain on campus. Big drinkers, hard partiers, popular with women. Rowdy young men who played high school sports, yelled a lot, and painted their bodies for football games. Guys with expendable cash whose fathers would give them jobs when, and if, they graduated.
I was none of these things, so I had no interest in being anywhere near them.
Then, I met…
John, a guy who was dating his high school sweetheart (and would later marry her and have four kids) who wanted to have fun without feeling awkward about planning to marry the first girl he’d ever been with. Rudy, a member of the exiled royal family of Sri Lanka, who cared a lot about fitting in somewhere in spite of his wealth. Mike, a skinny, hysterical, effeminate guy from the inner city who had grown up without a dad and who could do the best Michael Jackson imitation I have ever seen.
I met Tom, an amazing artist, who dressed funny, smoked smelly cigarettes, wrote poetry, and who almost made me like classical music. There was Darrell, a kid who looked like he just climbed down off a tractor who could crack me up with one farmer’s grin. Brian was from a big family and needed a certain level of chaos around him to feel safe. Aaron, the first Jewish person I ever befriended, who helped me pull a C- in Calculus that I completely didn’t deserve.
There was Rick, the identical twin, who was getting his first chance to make a name for himself as an individual and not as part of a pair, because his brother went to a different school. Eric, a young man who made me walk with him to the bookstore, who bought my books for me, and who told me I could pay him back when my loan money came in.
I think about Christian, a big bear who came from a family of teachers, and who dreamed of being a football coach. Jason who sat in the lounge and cried the night a Democrat won the governor’s seat because he thought it was the worst thing that had ever happened. John, his best friend and roommate, who ran to his room, put on a campaign t-shirt for the Democrat, then returned to the lounge to ask Jason why he was crying.
Brett called everyone “buddy.” Mike who surprised no one five years later when he became a priest. Rob, whose parents were in the middle of a really, really ugly divorce. Dan had been abused drugs and alcohol in high school, had gotten clean, and needed a place where his friends would call him on any questionable behavior.
In the last two decades, I’ve met fraternity brothers from my chapter and others of every shape, background, skin color and background. I’ve met Democrats, Republicans, Libertarians, Socialists. I’ve met guys with disabilities and guys who were natural, remarkable athletes. Brothers who talked very little and ones that wouldn’t shut up. Chunky fellas with bad hair and acne, and others who were hot like movie stars. I’ve had brothers who did things they weren’t proud of, and others who brought tears to my eyes with their amazing acts of generosity. I’ve met guys who drank too much, guys who didn’t drink at all, and guys who always made sure you had a sober ride home. Religious boys who loved Jesus, and gay boys who loved Madonna. And yes, guys who painted their bodies for football games.
The only thing I can tell you about the men who join fraternities – the only thing that they’ve all universally had in common – was their openness to being part of a family. Because, that’s what a fraternity is. It’s a family. A place where you argue, and have fun together, and get mad at each other, kill time together, and enable each other’s best and worst impulses. A place where a guy you don’t like that much is still your brother, and you find a way to make it work.
We’ve done a poor job of telling people about this. We let the images of buffoonery become the reality that people have about fraternities. It’s not houses with letters on them, it’s not party t-shirts, it’s not pranks, or paddles, or any of that other bullshit.
Fraternity is a situation where a guy who doesn’t fit in very well, who doesn’t look the part, who doesn’t get along with his dad, or who worries a lot can feel comfortable. It’s this space where you feel valued, and cared about, and safe during a time of your life when absolutely everything feels uncertain.
If you’ve experienced brotherhood like that, then you understand it. If you don’t, it’s never too late. And, if you’re thinking about it, you’d be a fool not to jump at it.