Lynah Rink hosted a particular crowd a few nights ago. The most-of-the-time victorious Cornell varsity hockey team and their usual opponents were replaced by a charming game between two of Cornell’s best known sororities, with a historical rivalry that is not confined to hockey. These pretty girls were lining up against each other for their first real hockey game, and as they swirled — and fell — on the ice, the referees would take them in their arms and, after some opportunistic cuddles, put them back up on their feet.
A witness to this fun event, I had to admire the grace of these ladies in an element they obviously did not master. As I saw the enthusiasm of both players and supporters, the French intellectual that I try to be had to reflect on this phenomenon I discovered as I came to Cornell: the “Greek” life. And as Tocqueville did in Democracy in America, I will write on fraternities and sororities at Cornell.
To be fair, I did know a little bit about the topic before I left Paris on a journey to Ithaca. My DG mother — an American — was of that species when at Cornell. And, my Kappa aunt, my uncles and my grand-parents, who also were members of “Greek” clubs during their studies on this snowy campus, would tell me about the secret handshakes, the code-words, the secret songs, and all those bizarre things that those bizarre Americans do. Sisterhood, brotherhood … We don’t engage in that in France.
I also would hear about the fun experiences, the great friendships, and the lasting relations forged under this system. And the DGs who would cross the ocean to visit my mother every year would prove that these are not just words.
* * *
The DGs and the Kappas got ready for the big game. At this point, only the pink skates of one of the players in black, and the way some others held their mallets — like a tennis racquet — illustrated that this was not the Cornell varsity. And as soon as the whistle blew, the impression was confirmed: some girls fell down right where they are, others slid on their stomach across the rink, others, still, bumped into each other inadvertently and ended up invariably on the ice. As the game goes on, one of the girls got so intensely into her duel that she tripped her opponent with her mallet and proceeded towards the goal, until the referee, charmed by the whole scene of chaos and girls gliding around him, got back to his duty and sent her to the “box.” She was like a lion in a cage, and after her penalty time was over, the referee decided not to take any risk and let someone else open the door. Some other girls, forgetting perhaps that they were playing hockey, suddenly started dancing and added to the general mess.
* * *
When I was a freshman, with some arrogance, I kept my distance from them — I was too French. As a result, the common vision of the “Greek” system polluted my impressions: “sorostitutes,” party girls and superficial people.
When I would hear “Greek life,” I would be confused: Greek? Greek life for us Europeans is Greece, not fraternities. One of my friends at the time, Kleopatra, a senior from the real Greece, was often referred to as the queen of the “non-Greek” world. It took me a while to figure this out. They meant: she was one of the most “popular” girls in the intellectual crowds, outside of the fraternity and sorority system. Basically, they meant that the Greek girl was not part of the superficial “Greek” people. All that was too complex for me.
Two year later, as I watched this game go on and reflected on what I had learned since, it struck me how much my vision of the “Greeks” had been distorted. These girls are fun, and their fun is not just emptying kegs of Keystone light at parties or sipping champagne at formals. They organize light-hearted sportive events; they lead philantropical initiatives that make a difference. Their members are involved in Cornell’s most active student organizations and are some of the brightest elements of this campus. Many of them are real leaders in our small community, and many more will become leaders at the national and international levels.
An anecdote among many that show how brilliant “Greeks” are: at a recent gala dinner hosted by the Cornell International Affairs Review, I was sitting with some sorority girls and some renowned professors. The “Greek” girls not only charmed the professors, but impressed them with their conversations on foreign affairs and political philosophy, leaving some “non-Greeks,” like me, lost in the exchanges.
* * *
As the goalie saved a heroic goal, getting down on her knees to crunch the puck under her stuffed pads, the supporters cheered and jumped all over, the way girls do: with passion, and energy, with pompoms and banners. Cute dynamism. The pack of supporters danced, sang, stomped, and BlackBerry-Messaged all at the same time. What a charming group of women: they know how to have fun when it is time to have to have fun, and they know how to lead when it is time to lead.
A Frenchman in America, I have to recognize that those “Greeks” are quite something, and that this something adds a lot to our campus.
Luis-François de Lencquesaing is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at email@example.com. Send letters to the editor at firstname.lastname@example.org