Secret Societies Lay ’Neath the Elms at Trinity: Elm and Key

6 min read

Gillian Reinhard ’20

Editor-in-Chief

Do you really go to an elite New England college if there aren’t secret societies? As Editor-in-Chief of the Tripod, I have a leadership position on-campus, but I have largely flown under the radar of Trinity’s secret societies. This past fall, however, I was selected to embark on a journey through Elm and Key’s initiation process. Elm and Key is a quasi-secret society at Trinity, with somewhat less notoriety than its counterpart, Medusa, which consists of a “frattier” cohort of students and alums. Elm and Key, in contrast, is known as a leadership society, and recruits a comparatively more diverse group of students.

It is difficult to call Elm and Key a “secret society” à la Skull and Bones at Yale or even Medusa at Trinity, because all graduating members of the organization wear large key necklaces at graduation each year.
My adventure with one of Trinity’s well-known secret societies began with an email from elmandkey@aol.com.Thinking there was no way a secret society was actually operating under the email address elmandkey@aol.com, I took the organization’s demand to visit my mailbox over in the basement of Mather with a grain of salt (my Crescent housemates are notorious for pranks of that nature). To my surprise, however, an actual letter addressed to me sat in my inbox, directing me to check out a book from the library. This led me on a chase throughout the library, continuously finding letters which led me to book after book. Letters referred to Trinity’s origin as an Episcopalian school and included excessive biblical quotations referencing the seven seals of the Book of Revelations. Luckily, I was only tasked with breaking four seals that day.

The best word to describe the letters received is, unfortunately, “cringey.” Each letter was riddled with random capitalization in its content (the letters spelling out things like “Nero’s fire” and, of course, “Elm and Key”) as well as esoteric references (“those who wear the Tau Cross and those who wear the Star and Crescent”). I’m a strong believer in not engaging with pseudo-intellectual language with Shakespearean words like “thee,” “thy,” and “hither.” While I think the angle of these letters was an attempt to establish a connection to Trinity’s past, no one still spoke like that in 1823, the year Trinity was founded.

Further journeys led me to the Chapel’s rose garden, pews, and the chemistry library. I was instructed to leave an item of significance behind. Of course, I chose to leave a copy of the Tripod, and subsequently watched a suspected member of the group collect my Tripod, see me, then turn around. The initiation culminated at the Greenberg Center, which ruined a majority of the fun.
Upon breaking the seventh seal of Revelation, I knocked on the Greenberg Center exactly seven times at exactly 9:22, and was greeted by two people in Party City black masks and black robes. The members took away my shoes and blindfolded me. I wanted to tell these two mysterious figures that, “I don’t want to be hazed as a senior,” but they told me I was no longer allowed to speak.

I texted a friend (and Greenberg Center undergraduate fellow) that I had been blindfolded with a projector placed in front of my face in his place of work, and, as a result, I was promptly removed from the building. “You’ve failed,” they informed me, and I was kicked out of the Greenberg Center. I told them to have a nice night, and rumor has it they climbed up to the top of the Chapel, a myth confirmed by some intrepid members of Chapel Council.

Does this Tripod article ruin the fun of secret societies? Definitely. Does Trinity need another elitist secret society where students choose other students to refer to themselves collectively as “the best and brightest” of the school? Definitely not. Upon being kicked out of the Greenberg Center, members berated me for undermining the important work the group does to make Trinity a better place.

If leaders tasked with representing the student body on campus are actually gathering at the top of the Chapel and the Greenberg Center in black Harry Potter robes and discussing how they are the puppet masters of Trinity College, this organization is not consistent with our school’s values.

My experience with Elm and Key leads me back to square one. How do we make Trinity a better place? I believe the first steps begin with reaching out to students who would not be considered the “best.” I believe that all members of the community must work together, instead of segregating into groups. We can’t separate Trinity into those of us who identify as “the brightest” and those who do not have that designation. We can’t confuse a “secret” society with what it really is, an elite society.

Just as I left my item of significance at the Chapel (I don’t expect to get it back at this point), Trinity must leave behind its elitism. If Elm and Key thinks it is making Trinity a better place by secretly bringing together the “best and brightest,” then they are falling into the same bad habits that have held our little bubble back for nearly two centuries. As we strive to live in a more welcoming and egalitarian environment, one that truly lives out the values of diversity, equity, and inclusion, we must recognize that secret societies have no place in that world.

We must also refrain from giving these societies undue credit. There is no invisible hand pulling the strings at Trinity. The closed groups that carry the most weight and power on our campus remain class, race, gender, and wealth, not a collection of students in costumes.

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