Freshmen at the University of Dayton didn’t know any better. Girls talked to guys just met and agreed to dates. Boys got together for pick up basketball games. Parties were egalitarian and easy going. Social status and birthplace meant nothing in September. But things changed by the end of October.
The fraternities and sororities rushed in late September and accepted new recruits by the end of October. The sorting process established caste systems among the freshmen. Members of certain fraternities didn’t associate with members of rival brotherhoods. Sororities limited dating options. Non-Greeks became the untouchables.
Upperclassmen reinforced social standards already established at the University: some students joined the elite; the rest were excluded. The atmosphere of open friendliness abruptly withered. If a boy hadn’t joined a frat, or hadn’t joined the right frat, he had no status in the dating game. A girl who formerly greeted a classmate with a smile would now pretend that he/she no longer existed.
Birthplace became an issue. Students from the northeast looked down upon students from Dayton. Kids from western Pennsylvania and Michigan had a lower standing than punks from Jersey. A banner hung from a fence during club recruitment week invited out of towners to join the “Shoot a Commuter Club”.
I was one of the locals and commuted. My friends generally came from Dayton and its suburbs. We didn’t choose to huddle together, but simply got sorted into our designated milieu. Students from Cleveland, Columbus and Cincinnati ranked higher than us, and we discovered that even fellow Ohioans reserved a portion of their contempt for the Gem City.
More subtle distinctions gradually emerged. A Dayton girl who had attended a Catholic high school kept asking me if I was a Catholic. She refused to accept an affirmative and looked at me with suspicion. Denise somehow sensed that I had attended a public high school and hadn’t undergone full indoctrination in the Catholic education system. I wasn’t truly one of her people.
The arbitrary narrowness of the sorting process bothered me at first, but I soon learned to curb friendly impulses when thrown together with folks outside my “play group”. I’d experienced a similar isolation in high school based on my blue collar background. I didn’t fit in with the kids whose fathers were professionals, who didn’t wonder whether their dads would fork over money for a class ring. No new hardship in college. Just more of the same.
I did try to gun for a girl from Philadelphia in my senior year. I eventually discovered that a woman named Sheila had already won her affections, but endured an awkward conversation with my intended before giving up the chase. Kathy narrowed her eyes after she discovered my place of birth and said, “So, you think that the sun rises and falls at the city limits, don’tcha?”
We had discussed poetry and literature, and she had seen and appreciated my paintings. But to her I was just a rube.
I still remember the rush of my first days in college when all things seemed possible. It’s too bad that our natural tendency to sort and rank ruined a glimpse of paradise.