Tuesday, October 13, 2009

A Ghost Story

This week was Fall Formal Recruitment at the University of Oregon- a phrase that strikes fear into the hearts of many women who have endured its work weeks, its sleepless nights, its exhausting days. Plenty loathe it; I always loved it. Part of this probably has to do with my freakishly competitive nature, as my chapter is, without fail, a recruiting powerhouse. There is a definite "rush" to the possibility of sharing your world with someone new who might also really love it and have the potential to contribute positively to it.

Out of context, the whole concept is terribly catty, counterintuitive, and wholly incomprehensible, but part of the bliss of living in an old mansion in your early twenties with fifty other girls at a big state school is that is is in context: that house is your planet. That sorority house itself is your home and the girls within it, your family. Meals are taken together, favorite shows are watched together, sleep space, bathroom space and study space is shared - TOO much is shared- all the important lessons and profundities, more of the daily dramas and hilarities. The days revolve around getting back to that house.
The heavy blue front door is the gateway into your world and it is a privilege to be a part of it.

..Which is why recruitment is so exciting. You get to add to that beautiful little microcosm. Recruitment is the lifeblood of the organization, and thus, truly is important to those involved. As we so often reminded each other in hushed tones, "All it takes is one bad class..." and *poof*- done for. Gone. A poorly assembled pledge class leads to future poor recruitments, which leads to less great women, which leads to less people paying the bills and all of a sudden, you've got an empty giant house and nowhere to crash at alumni homecoming weekend, and no where through which to tour your own daughter in that distant foggy place of adulthood and graduation, and are left with nothing but the ghosts of so many good times.

This idea haunted us, moreso than the spectre on the sleeping porch (a ghost story for another day), even moreso than Shannon Lacey.

Shannon Lacey.

Utter her name to this day in the chapter house at the University of Oregon and everyone in the room will know to whom you are referring.

Shannon Lacey: eternal sniper of hair ties, Q-Tips, and tampons. A kleptomaniac of such jaded disposition that a grandmother's pearl ring, any type of expensive science textbook, and umbrellas of all persuasions stood nary a chance against her sticky-fingered self.

Shannon Lacey was constantly leaving curling irons on overnight, mischievously picking the best toppings off of personal pizzas left in the common fridge, and breaking the copy machine.

Shannon Lacey started rumors, clogged the toilet, and kept leaving her empty fifths of cheap vodka in the basement.

She was ruthless and undiscerning in her devilry and left a swath of frustration and accusations in her terrible wake. She could not be contained.

One might ask why we chose to put up with this type of behavior- how we, an organization based on noble principles could tolerate the baseness of such a character. "Send her to the committee of Standards!" "Pull her pin!" you'd think.

But we couldn't.
Simply put, Shannon Lacey didn't exist.

To be fair, there was a young woman on campus named Shannon Lacey, and in fact, she ended up working at the campus Starbucks (the news of which was excitedly announced to a lunchtime crowd by a latte-drenched messenger, flush with the adrenaline of her post-ghost-sighting sprint to the house: "YOU GUYS. I SAW HER. SHANNON LACEY WORKS...AT STARBUCKS. I know, right?! Oh sweet- bagel bar for lunch!") but that is neither here nor there.

Shannon Lacey's spirit came to inhabit the sorority house from which she was corporeally denied admittance in the fall of my freshman year.

The story goes that after the first night of Fall Formal Recruitment, during the highly secretive member meeting wherein all potential new members are considered for membership, something odd happened.

As these sorority women were accustomed to being cogs of the efficient recruiting machine (oiled with Coco Mademoiselle and tears, of course) it was well understood that it would simply not be possible for a young woman to sneak into the house during a recruitment event and leave unnoticed, without having spoken to a highly-trained smile machine- a femme bot engineered to have Tiffany & Co. platinum-strength traps for minds and discerning judgements about all potential new members. Such things did not happen.

Thus, it was disconcerting when Lu (my best friend and "Big Sis," from whom this lore was first relayed to me) stood at the end of the session and said, "Wait, what about Shannon Lacey?"

"Who?" our membership chairman asked impatiently. Women were restless at this point, and ready to get to their homework, phone calls with boyfriends, or sleep.

"Shannon Lacey. She was here. She went to my high school - I saw her.

"What does she look like, then?" someone asked. "Yeah, what's she look like?"

"Okay, well...she has dirty blonde hair- it's big, and in tight, little curls. Medium height...she has a pale face- good skin- and dark circles under her eyes, and she was wearing a sort of lavender t-shirt, with a denim jacket and a sort of satchel bag (brown leather) and-"

As ruling queen of The Look (whereupon Lu would take in your entire appearance with a pert scan and then visibly register a judgement) it was not surprising that she could recount exactly what someone had been wearing. What was surprising was that still, no one claimed to have talked with the mystery girl.

"Well, I KNOW I saw her," Lu muttered, trailing off and turning to sit in her chair, peeved.

"We will make sure to put her on the list for tomorrow," said the membership chairman.

This was the first time Shannon Lacey's name was uttered in the walls of the house she would unwittingly come to inhabit. It was off-putting that no one claimed to have met her.
The meeting wrapped up without incident, and it was all but forgotten.

The next night, after another long day of chipper conversations with hundreds of strangers, the girls settled in for another meeting. Again, Shannon Lacey's name did not appear on the dockett.

Lu stood and announced, "Um, Shannon Lacey was here again. I KNOW she was."
The membership chair turned to face her. "You have got to be kidding me," she said, scanning her notes and lists for the name. "Wow, that is weird. We definitely put her through yesterday and her name is no where here."

Indignantly, Lu repeated, "Yes, and I saw her again! Oh come ON! Someone must have spoken with her! Seriously, I came face to face with her!" The recruitment chair confirmed that everyone on their lists had shown up for their expected tours that day, but still, not a single woman claimed to have made Shannon Lacey's acquaintance.

A titter passed through the room. The membership chairman barked for the cessation of the excited chatter that was rising in the room and again, penciled the name in, vocalizing that perhaps the Greek Life Office had made a mistake.

By the third day, there was no way that Shannon Lacey could have set foot in that house without setting off a Mouse Trap-esque chain reaction of high pitched gossip. She had already become a figure in everyone's sleep-deprived imaginations.

But she never came.

That night in the highly secretive membership meeting, her name was rightfully on the list, but this time, not even Lu claimed to have seen her. The name loomed, but there was no presence to back it up. The membership chairman rolled her eyes, and put her serious face on to let the room know that this matter was over and done with, and they would be moving on. If only it was that easy.

By the time my class was recruited and starting our pledge period a few days later, the lore of Shannon Lacey had already become a permanent fixture of the house, along with that big blue front door.
When someone's new jeans went missing: "Shannon Lacey did it!" someone would chirp jovially from the television room.
When someone took someone else's wet clothes out of the washing machine and dumped them on the floor and took the dryer for themselves: "Ha! Maybe Shannon Lacey did it!" we'd say.

Her name came up in skits, was written in as a guest at meal-times, and when someone didn't have a date to a function, they said they'd just take Shannon Lacey. Once, someone copied a bunch of drawings of a smiley face with "Shannong Lacey is watching you..." underneath it, and plastered them around the house.

DVDs went missing from Sex and the City box sets, eyeliner pencils were broken...really spooky stuff. And always, "Shannon Lacey did it!"

The scariest part, we came to realize, is that Shannon Lacey is all of us.

Shannon Lacey is the diffusion of responsibility in a house full of busy women who are still growing, still learning, still making mistakes.

Shannon Lacey is a sickness, haunting every large group who cannot muster the full participation and passion of its members. She is the horrid howling wind that carries gossip, and rumors.
She is probably going to set the smoke alarm off more than once this year.
She is definitely going to drink too much, throw up on her own date, and make out with someone else's at a dance.

I have learned that those things will tear a houseful of women apart faster than a bad recruitment can. So, with the fresh start of a new pledge class, I encourage all young women in sororities this year to give up the ghost: be fully present, be fully yourselves, and be fully responsible for your own actions. Don't let Shannon Lacey haunt your house.