I don’t know how old you are or if your high school had a prom, or if you went to your high school prom. I graduated from high school in the late 80s, from a public high school in small-town New England. And, although we did have a prom – that grand formal dance with a live band, tuxes and gowns and corsages and painful shoes – I didn’t go to mine. I can’t even recall why, really – it had something to do with my high ideals of the time. Maybe I had read Catcher in the Rye too seriously. But, as a member of my school’s student council over the years, I had certainly planned and set-up any number of school dances, formal and informal, so I knew what I was missing.
The formal dances at my high school were always held in the gymnasium – which was, like it or not, the largest available event space within an hour’s drive. Starting on Thursday evening before the big event, an intricate arrangement of high-wires, crepe paper, and balloons would transform the rather boxy hardwood and cinderblock environment of the gym into a pastel-colored, elegantly shaped dreamworld. We would have themes to the prom, usually based on some song had heard all those years on our favorite classic rock station: “Octopus’s Garden,” “Dream On,” and, of course, inevitably, “Stairway to Heaven.” We drove our own cars to the prom; we consumed food that we had brought and the punch we mixed; we arrived early and left late. In short, we made the most of the time there, because there was really nothing better to do.
A few weeks ago I was a chaperone at my first modern big-city prom. Although I am rarely surprised by they way young people do things these days – well, I was rather surprised by the way young people do things these days, the way they do the prom. First of all, no high school gym for today’s kids – no, prom was held at a very fine hotel ballroom right on Miami Beach. For those who didn’t arrive in limousines, there was valet parking. A catered three-course meal was served by waiters in tuxedos. It was a very posh set up – except that instead of a live band, a DJ played music. And boy did he ever, this DJ – played it at almost full volume all the way through dinner, loud enough so that not even the kids bothered much with talking to each other. But once the plates were cleared away, everyone moved to the dance floor, and it seemed pretty much like the formal dances I remember – except we didn’t listen to hip-hop, but I have no problem with hip-hop in general. I just don’t like any music played so loud if makes the lettuce in my salad lose its molecular structure.
At times, I felt as if I were at a wedding reception that lacked a bride and groom, but, as the evening passed, there was much that seemed familiar – although many years ago I was experiencing the prom rather than observing: How everybody looked a little awkward in their fancy clothes; the romantically hopeful singles at the start of the evening, and the heartbroken dreamers at the end of the night; those few kids who arrive late and leave early; the rumors of preparties and afterparties; the arguments between couples and friends, the gossip, the giddiness, the laughter, the futile attempts to hide bad behavior from the chaperones. For the young people, caught up in the moment, it’s as if their entire lives are wrapped up in the evening – and, in a very real sense – their lives are just that. They are, after all, still in high school. Who am I to belittle that experience?
I suppose, in the end, that was one of the reasons I didn’t go to my own prom – I felt I had outgrown it. And maybe I had – but now, I kind of wish I could go back and talk to that eighteen year old me and tell him that, just one last time, put on the tie and jacket and the shiny shoes, pin that corsage on the front of your date’s dress, compliment her on her hair, and go have the most magical night of your life.
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