As we were reminded this week, April is traditionally a month to celebrate being passed over. Two weeks from tomorrow, however, a peculiar tradition will descend on Yale like a Tenth Plague that defies Passover’s aversion to selection: secret society Tap Night. And unlike the ancestors of a trickle of Yale students, the majority of their descendants — plus a few others — will find themselves wishing they had been the chosen ones.
It is a bizarre moment when Tap Night hits. Party City has its biggest day of “Scream” mask sales outside of Halloween, as a group of seniors don cloaks to tap their Sydneys. That meathead from section a few hours ago is now wearing a sumo wrestling loincloth and painted blue. “Drunk Senior Girls” are dancing on top of the Women’s Table singing “It’s My Party” at the top of their lungs as you pass them on the way to the library. (How’s that for women’s lib?) Suddenly, another distinction is created at Yale between inside and outside. Which one are you?
We are bred at Yale to crave excellence. Yalies feed off competitiveness and selection, which is why they were attracted to Yale in the first place and, more importantly, why they are here. Secret societies inherently make sense to Yalies in a way they do not to non-Yalies. Societies represent Yale in a nutshell: exclusive, full of tradition, and weird.
We are also taught when we get here (and for most of us, before) that secret societies select for leaders among leaders. Since they choose from some of the best students in the country, they must be even more elite than Yale itself. That is certainly how I felt walking onto campus. Maybe it was reading “Stover at Yale,” a book chronicling the Old Yale life of student Dink Stover in his quest for social ascendancy, but I was sure I would be in a secret society come senior year.
But in reality, I knew well before Tap Night that I was not going to get tapped, much as my friends who were tapped knew they would be. With the exception of a few societies that weigh faculty input, societies are not about to choose you for how brilliant you were in seminar or how likely it is they think you will be a senator. Getting in is about joining chummy organizations. Groups that hang out with each other all the time and think what they do is the most important thing in the world. Like a cappella. Or obscure YPU parties. If you are dying to get tapped, do something cliquish and be reasonably well-liked in it, and you will probably get your wish if that group has taps. I did not do chummy extracurriculars, nor did any of my older friends have taps to bequeath. Somehow, life went on.
Another thing I quickly realized was that most of my best friends had not been tapped. And for those who had, it was not a life-changing event — with one exception. One of my friends wigged out like Dave Chappelle when he got tapped and promptly cut off all communication with his former suitemates. Now, when he approaches us, he acts like a skittish puppy. I am not sure the tradeoff was worth it.
Any way you put it, societies are contrived. Something irks me about society types who show up to a fellow member’s concert, conspicuously entering in a group and then sitting down in a row together. Going to a friend’s concert is the right thing to do. But people should not be acting as friends ought to act just because a group of seniors before them deemed them “cool.”
This is not to say that I have anything against the idea of societies. I am all for networking and drinking in groups. I find it exhausting to corral all my friends to drink at the same time and place, and it would be sweet to have that set up for me and to be able to do it in a place without windows.
So if you do not get tapped in a couple of weeks, hear these words from a seasoned vet. First, you are not alone. In fact, you are in the majority. Second, you can still be a future leader of America. Most of the societies are just a place to get wasted, and the ones that are supposedly elite are not anymore. I know some lame kids in Skull and Bones. Third, unlike your friends who jump ship for their societies, do not drop out of life at Yale even if you are tapped. This is the time to seize this place — as a senior you know more than everyone else. If you are not tapped, with the amount of extra time you will have in your schedule to devote to post-grad options, a meaningful senior essay and friends you actually care about, you will have your best year yet.
Steven Engler is a senior in Saybrook College. His column appears on alternate Wednesdays.