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Initiation Night

Initiation Night
Published on Feb 27, 2024.

The chanting began a little before midnight.

It was dark by the time they gathered us together, me and the other disciples I’d just met. We practiced the lines they had taught us, over and over until we got the words and the rhythms down pat. It would be our first public appearance, and our handlers didn’t want us to disappoint. It would reflect on them most of all.

We stood around for a while. I don't remember how long. California was chillier than I expected. I wondered if I should run back for a jacket, but I didn’t want the group to leave without me. I didn’t know where we were going.

Some of the other new blood seemed to have made friends already. They stood off in small cliques, laughing together like old friends. They’d known each other for less than 24 hours. I tried striking up a conversation or two with a few of the other, shier kids. No one really seemed to want to talk much with me. Maybe they’d noticed I wasn’t chanting all that loud.

To be honest, I was pretty uncomfortable with the whole thing. It wasn’t at all what I expected it would be. I had fantasized about this day for years, but for some reason, I’d never imagined it would be like this. I wanted to go home, where they didn’t do weird chants and where I had friends who actually liked me. But this was home now, I reminded myself. There was no turning back.

Eventually, on some hidden signal, we began to move. Our group leaders flanked us, some in the front and some in the back, to make sure no one got lost from the flock. Every now and then, they’d start up one of the chants they’d taught us, and we’d shout the words for a round or two, before it died of its own accord.

I’d never participated in a chant before. Most of my life, I’d stayed away from groups that enforced any strong sense of shared identity or conformity on its members. It’d always made me feel uncomfortable. I couldn’t understand how all these people who were so different from each other out there would suddenly start to act the same in here. It was eerie, like everyone pretending to act a certain way, but no one admitting openly that they were acting.

But like all the others, I had been drawn to this place for years. Its very name dripped with sacred sound, and I wanted nothing more than to have it for myself. To be part of this cult. To be saved by its promise.

We marched past the dark gardens and fountains woefully sprinkling in the night. In the distance I could hear other groups doing other chants, growing louder as we all converged on the same spot.

This would be the first time all of us met at the same place. We were the disciples of the new year, the ones hand-selected to be here. We’d all said goodbye to our previous lives, all left behind the only friends and family we’d ever known, to come here, to this special place, to be shaped and formed into adults.

Years later, on the streets of cities yet unknown, when we'd run into one another, we would play the game of "did you know", going through names of other disciples until we stumbled on one we both knew. And then we would sigh in satisfaction, happy that after all those years, we could still feel like we were once part of something special.

Eventually, we wound our way to the front of an enormous auditorium. There we stopped, surrounded now by other groups who had emerged from other corners of the darkness. Like us, they were chanting too, but different chants. Many of them were louder, more enthusiastic. Our group leaders looked a bit sheepish. One kept urging us on, but eventually the spirit left us, and we just stood around watching the other groups until it was time to go inside.

Inside the auditorium, they directed us to our rows. There, in that confined space, the chanting grew even louder. “From the windows to the wall…we are Wilbur Hall!” The auditorium had turned into a veritable echo chamber, with an unspoken competition between groups to see who could chant the loudest, the strongest, the longest.

Fifteen minutes later, now close to midnight, a middle-aged woman ascended the stairs to the stage. As she gazed out upon us, a motherly smile crept onto her lips. She was the reason all of us were here. She’d handpicked us from kids all over the country who wanted to be here, who would have killed to be here. To make it to this sacred place, this was the lady you had to impress.

The changing reached a feverish peak. “FloMo!” “Wilbur!” “Branner!” We were hoarse from the shouting, but we didn’t stop. We were vying for her attention, in a cacophony of desperation.

She held up a hand, and instantly we shushed.

“There is one more chant you need to learn, that we will all do together,” she said. “When I say ‘Oh!’, you say ‘Seven!’. ‘Oh’, ‘seven’. ‘Oh’, ‘seven’. OK? Got it?”

“Oh!” she said into the microphone. “SEVEN!” came the resounding reply of 1600 kids giddy with excitement, shouting in unison.

“Oh!” “SEVEN!” “Oh!” “SEVEN!” “Ooohhh!!!” “SEVEEEEEENNNNN!!”

Then she smiled and began to speak.

“You are here because you are special. For everyone of you that we chose there were 10 others we had to reject. You are the cream of your crop, the most competitive group that we have put together yet.”


“You come from many countries and many cultures. You speak many languages, and bring many talents. You are all accomplished in one way or another, and you are about to embark on a journey that will transform you. Here, you will learn the meaning of the world, how it came to be, and why it works the way it does. You will makes some of the best friends of your life. You will find your people.”

“So now I’d like to welcome you to your new home. This place, this very special place, will change who you are. Over the next four years, you will go through a profound transformation. You have entered as children who know little about the world. You will leave as adults ready to take it on.”

“As the Dean of Admissions for the Class of 2007, I’d like to welcome you to Stanford University.”

The chanting didn’t stop the rest of the night.