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Mr. Martinez's English Class - Delran High School
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Initiation - By Sylvia Plath
The basement room was dark and warm, like the inside ofa sealed jar, Millicent thought, her eyes getting used to the strange dimness. The silence was soft with cobwebs, and from the small, rectangular window set high in the stone wall there sifted a faint bluish light that must be coming from the full October moon. She could sec now that what she was sitting on was a woodpile next to the furnace. Millicent bnlshcd back a strand ofhair. It was stiff and sticky from the egg that they had broken on her head as she knelt blindfolded at the sorority altar a short while bcforc. There had been a silence. a slight crunching sound, and then she had felt the cold, slimy egg-white flattening and spreading on her head and sliding down her neck. She had heard someone smomeringa laugh. It was all part ofthe ceremony.
Then the girls had led her here, blindfolded still, through thc corridors of Bctsy Johnson's house and shut her in the cellar. It would be an hour before they came to get her, but then Rat Court would be all over and she would say what she had to say and go home.
For tonight was the grand finale, the trial by fire. There really was no doubt now that she would get in. She could not think of anyone who had ever been invited into the high school sorority and failed to get through initiation time. Bur even so, her case would be quite different. She would see co that. She could not exactly say what had decided her revolt, but it definitely had something to do with Tracy and something to do with the heamer birds.
What girl at Lansing High would not want to be in her place now? Millicent thought, amused. What girl would not want to be one of the elect, no matter if it did mean five days of initiation before and after school, encLing in the climax of Rat Court on Friday night when they made the new girls membersl Even Tracy had been wistful when she heard that Millicent had been one ofme five girls to receive an invitation.
"It won't be any different with us, Tracy," Millicent had cold her. " We'll still go around together like we always have, and next year you'll surely get .in."
" I know, but even so," Tracy had said quietly, "you'll change, whether you think you will or not. Nothing ever stays the same."
And nothing does, Millicem had thought. How horrible it would be ifone never changed. . if she were condemned to be the plain, shy Millicent of a few years back for the rest of her life. Fortunately there was always the changing, the growing, the going on.
lt would come to Tracy, too. She would tell Tracy the silly things the girls had said, and Tracy would change also, entering eventually into the magic circle. She would grow to know the special ritual as Millicent had started to last week.
"First of all," Betsy Johnson, the vivacious blonde secretary of the sorority, had cold the five new candidates over sandwiches in me school cafeteria last Monday, " first of all, each of you has a big sister. She's the one who bosses you around, and you just do what she tells you."
"Remember my part about talking back and smiling," Louise Fullerton had put in, laughing. She was another celebrity in high school, pretty and dark and vice-president of the student council. "You can't say anything unless your big sister asks you something or tells you to talk to someone. And you can't smile, no matter how you're dying to." The girls had laughed a little nervously, and then the bell had rung for the beginning of afternoon classes.
It would be rather fun for a change, Millicent mused, getting her books out ofher locker in the hall, rather exciting to be part ofa closely knit group, the exclusive set at Lansing High. Of course, it wasn't a school organization. In fact, the principal, Mr. eramon, wanted to do away with initiation week altogether, because he thought it was undemocratic and disturbed the routine of school work. But there wasn't really anything he could do about it. Sure, the girls had to come to school for five days without any lipstick on and without curling their hair, and ofcourse everybody noticed them, but what could the teachers do?
Millicent sat down at her desk in the big study hall. Tomorrow she would come to school, proudJy, laughingly, without lipstick, with her brown hair straight and shoulder length, and then everybody would know, even the boys would know, that she was one ofthe elect. Teachers would smile helplessly, thinking perhaps: So now they've picked Millicent Arnold. I never would have guessed it.
A year or two ago, not many people would have guessed it. Millicent had waited a long time for acceptance, longer than most. It was as if she had been sitting for years in a pavilion outside a dance floor, looking in through the windows at the golden interior, with the lights clear and the air like honey, wistfully watching the couples waltzing to the never-ending music, laughing in pairs and groups together, no one alone.
But now at last, amid a week of fanfare and merriment, she would answer her invitation to enter the ballroom through the main entrance marked "Initiation." She would gather up her velvet skirts, her silken train, or whatever the disinherited princesses wore in the story books, and come into her rightful kingdom. .. The bell rang to end study hall.
"Millicent, wait up! " It was Louise Fullerton behind her, Louise who had always before been very nice, very polite, friendlier than the rest, even long ago, before the invitation had come.
"Listen," Louise \valked down the hall with her to Latin, their next class, "are you busy right after school today? Because I'd like to talk to you about tomorrow."
"Sure. I've got lots of time."
"Well, meet me in the hall after homeroom then, and we'll go down to the drugstore or something."
Walking beside Louise on the way to the drugstore, Millicent felt a surge of pride. For all anyone could see, she and Louise were the best
"You know, I was so glad when they voted you in," Louise said.
Millicent smiled. " I was really thrilled to get the invitation," she said frankly, "but kind of sorry that Tracy didn't get in, too."
Tracy, she thought. If there is such a thing as a best friend, Tracy has been just that this last year.
" Yes, Tracy,' Louise was saying, "she's a nice girl, and they put her up on the slate, but ... well, she had three blackballs against her."
" Blackballs? What are they?"
" Well, we're not supposed to tell anybody outside the club, but seeing as you'll be in at the end of the week I don't suppose it hurts."
They were at the drugstore now.
" You see," Louise began explaining in a low voice after they were seated in the privacy of the booth, "once a year the sorority puts up
all the likely girls that are suggested for membership. "
Millicent sipped her cold, sweet drink. slowly, saving the ice cream to spoon up last. She listened carefully to Louise who was going on,
" ... and then there's a big meeting, and all the girls' names are read off and each girl is discussed."
"Oh?" Millicent asked mechanically, her voice sounding strange.
"Oh, I know what you' re thinking," Louise laughed. " But it's really not as bad as all that. They keep it down to a minimum of chatting.
They just talk over each girl and why or why not they think she'd be good for the club. And then they vote. Three blackballs eliminate a
"Do you mind if I ask you what happened to Tracy?" Millicent said.
Louise laughed a little uneasily. " Well, you know how girls are. They notice little things. I mean, some ofthem thought Tracy was just a bit too different. Maybe you could suggest a few things to her. "
" Like what?"
"Oh, like maybe not wearing knee socks to school, or carrying that old bookbag. I know it doesn 't sound like much, but well, it's things
like that which set someone apart. I mean, you know that no girl at Lansing would be seen dead wearing knee socks, no matter how cold it gets, and it's kiddish and kind of green to carry a bookbag."
"I guess so," Millicent said.
" About tomorrow," Louise went on. "You've drawn Beverly Mitchell for a big sister. I wanted to warn you that she's the toughest, but if you get through all right it'll be all the more credit for you."
"Thanks, Lou," Millicent said gratefully, thinking, this is begin. ning to sound serious. Worse than a loyalty test, this grilling over the coals. What's it supposed to prove anyway? That I can take orders without flinching? Or docs it just make them feel good to see us run around at their beck and cill?
" All you have to do reilly," Louise said, spooning up the last of her sundae, " is be very meek and obedient when you're with Bev and do just what she tells you. Don't laugh or talk back or try to be funny, or she 'll just make it harder for you, and believe me, she's a great one for doing that. Be at her house at seven-thirty."
And she was. She rang the bell and sat down on the steps to wait for Bev. Aftera few minutes the front door opened and Bev was standing there, her face serious.
"Get up, gopher," Bev ordered.
There was something about her tone that annoyed Millicent. It was almost malicious. And there was an unpleasant anonymity about the label "gopher," even if that was what they always called the girls being initiated. It was degrading, like being given a number. It was a denial of individuality.
Rebellion flooded through her.
"I said get up. Are you deaf?"
Millicent get up, standing there.
" Into the house, gopher. There's a bed to be made and a room to be cleaned at the rep of the stairs. "
Millicent went up the stairs mutely. She found Bev's room and started making the bed. Smiling to herself, she was thinking: How absurdly funny, me taking orders from this girl like a servant.
Bev was suddenly there in the doorway. "Wipe that smile off your face," she commanded.
There seemed something about this relationship that was not all fun. In Bev's eyes, Millicent was sure of it, there was a hard, bright spark of exultation.
On the way to school, Millicent had to walk behind Bev at a distance often paces, carrying her books. They came up to the drugstore where there already was a crowd of boys and girls from Lansing High waiting for the show.
The other girls being initiated were there, so Millicent felt relieved. It would not be so bad now, being part of the group.
"What'll we have them do?" Betsy Johnson asked Bev. That morning Betsy had made her " gopher" carry an old colored parasol through the square and sing " I' m Always Chasing Rainbows."
"I know," Herb Dalton, the good-looking basketball captain, said. A remarkable change came over Bev. She was all at once very soft and coquettish. "You can't tell them what to do," Bev said sweetly. " Men have nothing to say about this little deal. " "All right, all right," Herb laughed, stepping back and pretending to fend off a blow. " It's getting late," Louise had come up. " Almost eight-thirty. We'd better get them marching on to school."
The "gophers" had to do a Charleston· step all the way to school, and each one had het own song to sing, trying to drown out the other four. During school, of course, you couldn' t fool around, but even then, there was a rule that you mustn't talk. to boys outside of class or at lunchtime ... or any time at all after school So the sorority girls would get the most popular boys to go up to the "gophers" and ask them out, or try to start them talking, and sometimes a "gopher" was taken by surprise and began to say something before she could catch herself. And then the boy reported her and she got a black mark.
Herb Dalton approached Millicent as she was getting an ice cream at the lunch counter that noon. She saw him coming before he spoke to her, and looked down quickly, thinking: He is too princdy, too dark and smiling. And I am much too vulnerable. Why must he be the one I have to be careful of?
I won' t say anything, she thought, I'll just smile very sweetly.
She smiled up at Herb very sweetly and mutely. His return grin was rather miraculous. It was surely more than was called for in the line of dury.
" I know you can't calk to me," he said, very low. "But you're doing fine, the girls say. I even like your hair straight and all."
Bev was coming toward them, then, her red mouth set in a bright, calculating smile. She ignored Millicent and sailc:d up to Herb. "Why waste your time with gophers~" she caroled gaily. "Their tongues are tied, but completely." Herb managed a partingshot. "Bur that one keeps such an attractive silence. "
Millicent smiled as she ate her sundae at the counter with Tracy. Generally, the girls who were outsiders now, as Millicent had been, scoffed at the initiation antics as childish and absurd to hide their secret envy. But Tracy was understanding, as ever.
"Tonight's the worst, I guess, Tracy, " Millicent told her. " I hear that the girls are taking us on a bus over to Lewiston and going to have us performing in the square."
"Just keepa pokerface outside," Tracy advised. "But keep laughing like mad inside."
Millicent and Bev took a bus ahead ofthe rest ofthe girls; they had to stand up on the way to Lewiston Square. Bey seemed very cross about something. Finally she said, "You were talking with Herb Dalton at lunch today."
" No," said Millicent honestly.
"Well, I saw you smile at him. That's practically as bad as talking. Remember not to do it again. " Millicent kept silent. "It's fifteen minutes before the bus gets into town," Bev was saying then.
"I want you to go up and down the bus asking people what they eat for breakfast. Remember, you can't tell them you' re being initiated. "
Millicent looked down the aisle of the crowded bus and felt suddenly quite sick. She thought: How will I ever do it, going up to all those stony-faced people who are staring coldly out of the window....
"You heard me, gopher."
"Excuse me, madam," Millicent said politely to the lady in the first seat ofthe bus, "but I'm taking a survey. Could you please tell me what you eat for breakfast?"
" Why ... er ... just orange juice, toast, and coffee," she said. " Thank you very much." Millicent went on to the next person, a young business man. He ate eggs sunny side up, toast and coffee.
By the time Millicent got to the back ofthe bus, most of the people were smiling at her. They obviously know, she thought, that I' m being initiated into something.
Finally, there was only one man left in the corner of the back scat.
He was small and jolly, with a ruddy, wrinkled face that spread into a beaming smile as Millicent approached. In his brown suit with the forest-green tic he looked something like a gnome or a cheerful leprechaun.
"Excuse me, sir," Millicent smiled, "but I'm taking a survey. What do you eat for breakfast?"
"Heather birds' eyebrows on toast," the little man rattled off.
"What'?" Millicent exclaimed.
"Heather birds' eyebrows," the little man explained. "Heather birds live on the mythological moors and fly about all day long, singing wild and sweet in the sun. They're bright purple and have very tasty eyebrows." .
Millicent broke out into spontaneous laughter. Why, this was wonderful, the way she felt a sudden comradeship with a stranger.
"Are you mythological, toor"
"Not exactly," he replied, "but I certainly hope to be someday. Being mythological does wonders for one's ego. " The bus was swinging into the station now; Millicent hated to leave the little man. She wanted to ask him more about the birds.
And from that time on, initiations didn't bother Millicent at all. She went gaily about Lewiston Square from store to store asking for broken crackers and mangoes, and she just laughed inside when people stared and then brightened, answering her crazy questions as ifshe were quite serious and really a person ofconsequence. So many people were shut up tight inside themselves like boxes, yet they would open up, unfolding quite wonderfully, ifonly you were interested in them. And really, you didn't have to belong to a club to feci related to other human beings.
One afternoon Millicent had started talking with Liane Morris, another of the girls being initiated, about what it would be like when they were finally in the sorority.
" Oh, I know pretty much what it'll be like," Liane had said. "My sister belonged before she graduated from high school two years ago."
"Well, just what do they do as a club?" Millicent wanted to know.
"Why, they have a meeting once a week. Each girl takes turns entertaining at her house.. "
"You mean it's just a sort of exclusive social group ... . "
"I guess so ... though that's a funny way ofputting it. But it sure gives a girl prestige value. My sister started going steady with the captain of the football team after she got in. Not bad, I say." No, it wasn't bad, Millicent had thought, lying in bed on the morning of Rat Court and listening to the sparrows chirping in the gutters. She thought of Herb. Would he ever have been so friendly if she were without the sorority label? Would he ask her out (ifhe ever did) just for herself, no strings attached?
Then there was another thing that bothered her. Leaving Tracy on the outskirts. Because that is the way it would be; Millicent had seen it happen before.
Outside, the sparrows were still chirping, and as she lay in bed Millicent visualized them, pale gray-brown birds in a flock, one like the other, all exactly alike.
And then, for some reason, Millicent thought of the heather birds. Swooping carefree over the moors, they would go singing and crying out across the great spaces ofair, dipping and darting, strong and proud in their freedom and their sometime loneliness. It was then that she made her decision.
Seated now on the woodpile in Betsy Johnson's cellar, Millicent knew that she had come triumphant through the trial offire, the searing period of the ego which could end in two kinds ofvictory for her. The easiest of which would be her coronation as a princess, labeling her conclusively as one of the select flock.
The other victory would be much harder, but she knew that it was what she wanted. It was not that she was being noble or anything. It was just that she had learned there were other ways ofgetting into the great hall, blazing with lights, of people and of life.
It would be hard to explain to the girls tonight, ofcourse, but she could tell Louise later just how it was. How she had proved something to herselfby going through everything, even Rat Court, and then deciding not to join the sorority after all. And how she could still be friends \vith everybody. Sisters with everybody. Tracy, too.
The door behind her opened and a ray oflight sliced across the soft gloom of the basement room. "Hey Millicent, come on out now. This is it." There were some of the girls outside.
"I'm coming," she said, getting up and moving out of the soft darkness into the glare oflight, thinking: This is it, all right. The worst part, the hardest part, the part of initiation that I figured out myself.
But just then, from somewhere faroft~ Millicent was sure ofit, there came a melodic fluting, quite wild and sweet, and she knew that it must be the song of the heather birds as they went wheeling and gliding against wide blue horizons through vast spaces ofair, their wings flashing quick and purple in the bright sun.
Within Millicent another melody soared, strong and exuberant, a triumphant answer to the music of the darting heather birds that sang so clear and lilting over the far lands. And she knew that her own private initiation had just begun.
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