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That Time My Son Told Me He Was Joining a Fraternity

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I avoided being a part of Greek life as a college student as it held no allure for me. I’m just not a “joiner” by nature. As a new freshman, I went to a few frat parties, but other than that, I was a happy outsider. Maybe I missed out on something, but I have never had any regrets.

Fast forward 30 years: My oldest child is pledging a fraternity. I am not surprised as he specifically chose a large “rah-rah” university for the social life and the sports. He was very active in BBYO, a Jewish youth movement with separate boys and girls chapters—sort of like a high school Jewish Greek system. He loved the camaraderie, conventions, social life, and the opportunity to gain new skills and confidence through leadership roles. My husband was in a fraternity, but he and his buddies were asked to restart a dead chapter, so it wasn’t your typical frat experience. It sounded like a much more subdued scene than what happens in more typical fraternities, and it didn’t seem to be a life-changing experience for him.

My son rushed, and explored the various options, finally narrowing it down to one: ZBT. Being ignorant of all things frat-related, I asked him, “Are they good guys or are they a bunch of tools?”

“No, Mom, they are good guys…and they have the highest GPA of all the fraternities,” he assured me.

Phew, I thought. After all, school comes first. I relayed this to seasoned parents of frat boys who told me, “They all say that.” They advised me to zip my mouth, open my wallet, and hope for the best. Their sons seemed to have turned out fine. Hopefully, mine will too.

It’s all part of the big separation between my son and me. It’s not that I was vehemently opposed to his joining frat life—I just have some vague discomfort because of the negative stereotype of frat guys, some of which I plead guilty to believing. I keep telling myself that it’s his life, not mine. I hope he will stay true to himself and his values. I also pray that he doesn’t do anything too stupid, drink way too much, or end up in the hospital or jail. It was so much easier when I had control over his play dates, knowing where he goes, and whom he hangs out with.

I try to comfort myself that it’s a chapter of nice, Jewish boys. Some of his fellow pledges even went to Camp Ramah; those guys wouldn’t tolerate awful hazing, would they? I even researched the list of notable alumni to see if people emerge from a fraternity and go on to live productive lives, instead of remaining in the bottom of a beer-soaked pit—Jack Benny, Leonard Bernstein, and Harold Ramis were all accomplished artists. If my son goes into business, perhaps he will follow in the footsteps of fellow brothers Robert Kraft (owner of the New England Patriots) or William S. Paley (Founder of CBS.) If he’s interested in government, he’d be in good company with Ron Dermer (Israeli Ambassador to the US) and Stuart Eizenstat (who worked under Presidents Carter and Clinton.) Maybe I could even see my boy’s face on 60 Minutes, like ZBT alum Mike Wallace.

I am certain that my son will not tell me everything he has to do to prove his devotion and loyalty to the brotherhood. I was relieved when he said he was made to get up at 5:00 a.m. and run a few miles, as if that’s a horrible thing. He had to wear a dress shirt and tie three days a week, nothing objectionable about that. He was required to learn the Greek alphabet, and he even had to help with some home improvement projects around the fraternity house. At least, he may be learning how to use tools, instead of turning into one.

I am told that a fraternity is a way to find a smaller community in a large university. I get it. I have many friends and family who did the college Greek life. They have lifelong friends from their time together, and they are all normal people with normal lives.

I’m in no rush for these years to fly by too fast, but as a newly initiated mother of a brother, I pledge to keep my fingers crossed and hope for the best.


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