by Mr. Newman/Lion Adviser
Because I do a lot of grading and prep work in the college counseling office conference room, I occasionally overhear snippets of conversation among seniors in their lounge. Recently, three of them were commiserating with each other about some of the challenges of lining up prom dates, and I found myself thinking about this ubiquitous rite of passage, about my own prom experiences, about chaperoning Lovett proms for years now, and about all those movies and TV shows featuring prom that probably have as much to do with keeping the tradition alive in teen brains as their own parents’ expurgated stories.
I mean who wouldn’t want to be like Carrie in the 1976 film. She’s awkward and she has a crazy mother, but somehow she’s crowned prom queen. Score! Then she has pig’s blood dumped on her head, after which she shows everyone exactly what hell hath no fury like. Ten years later, in 1986’s “Pretty in Pink,” another awkward girl, named Andie, is dumped just before prom by rich-guy boyfriend Blaine, and ends up going stag in her homemade pink dress, only to reunite with Blaine in the parking lot afterwards, kissing him to the sound of O.M.D.’s “If You Leave.” Score!
With those two alternatives in my head, I walked over to the senior lounge and asked them about the most stressful things about prom. It turned out not be the fear of getting doused in pig’s blood. (We’ll see what happens, I guess.) Instead, perhaps because they were still in the prom pair-bonding phase, they said it was multiple people wanting to ask the same person.
“You need to beat them to the punch,” one of them said. They told me about a senior who had asked someone before another senior had the chance. The girl at the table, who didn’t have a date yet, said she’d be happy to go with the guy who’d been too slow.
I asked if they thought Chris set a high bar with his Ferris Bueller themed invite video, and they gave him props for originality. (Ironically, that’s one of the few 80s teen films without a prom scene). Puns, they said, seemed to be popular this year, as well as tailoring things to people’s activities and interests. For example, one of the guys at the table said he’d asked someone at the High Museum teen night. Apparently, she’s really into art.
“Are most prom couples platonic?” I asked. Yes, they said, other than the ones who are already in relationships. One of the guys asked someone he’s close to so they can have more fun. It will give them something more to remember, he said, “because we’re really good friends.” A related stress? Those picture parties. Apparently, where you go determines the rest of your night. The real problem, they said, is whether there is room to go with your friends. Images of the last transport out of Saigon come to mind. A rooftop of desperate seniors and juniors left behind to perish while their friends fly off to the Park Tavern, or Top Golf.
As a high school senior back in 1990, I certainly gave it my all to take someone I was dating. Months in advance of prom, I asked the girl I was going out with, and when she later broke up with me, I started dating someone else, and I asked her to prom, and then we crashed and burned, and I asked a third person who I was dating, and by the time prom came around we’d broken up, but we still went—took pictures together and everything—and we both ended up with other people. It was like a March Madness bracket, but with limos and corsages.
As I said, the girl at the table hadn’t been asked yet, and while she seemed a little unnerved by it, she wasn’t despairing. There was someone she hoped might pop the question, and I asked her if she would ever consider asking him. She didn’t seem thrilled by the idea, but she didn’t rule it out. Clearly she understood she could make her own destiny, but she was still hoping to be asked. “Find a yearbook and go through it,” one of the guys suggested to the girl. I wondered how she’d know who’d already been asked. I offered that Google Docs could be a good solution in the future for keeping track. While they thought I might have something there, they also recalled a problematic Google doc situation with PDC when girls were treating the whole thing like a Potluck sign up.
When I asked the girl what percentage of her brain was being occupied by this uncertainty, she thought about it, and said, forty-five. The other fifty-five? Figuring out which college to go to. So at least the majority of her brain power was going towards worrying about the next four years of her life, rather than who she was going to dance with to the sweet sounds of Air Tight.
Speaking of which, the seniors suggested one panacea for improving the prom experience: get a DJ. They talked about the band Air Tight the way teens talk about many adults in their lives: they know they’re supposed to value their longevity, but they’re not sure why. “Most schools have a DJ,” they said. “Westminster has a DJ.” With a DJ, they said, everyone knows the music. Perhaps the one advantage of the cover band, they said, is that there isn’t the awkwardness of chaperones needing to separate them. The music of Air Tight doesn’t lend itself to that kind of dancing. Apparently, there will be plenty of space for Jesus.
We also batted around the solution of just going alone. Or with friends. They told me some girls at Westminster were going as a group without dates. That actually struck me as more befitting modern youth culture. After years of shepherding the Valentine’s Day issue of The Lion, I’m well aware that there’s not a whole lot of dating that goes on at Lovett. And maybe that can actually lead to some exciting drama. The most recent season of Stranger Things ended not after our heroes had (again) fended off monsters from another dimension, but at a middle school dance where some serious teen longing played out between the characters, all to Peter Gabriel’s heart-rending tune “In Your Eyes” (which was itself a callback to the late 80s classic teen rom-com “Say Anything,” as if John Cusack was holding a boombox over his head with Finn Wolfhard on top of it holding up his own boombox.)
Was all this prom angst worth it, I asked them.
“The stress is asking,” one of the seniors said. “But then it’s fun to go with someone.”
And I suppose that was good to hear. In spite of the stress of having to come up with some clever pun (or very involved video) to ask someone; in spite of picture parties that don’t always have enough room; in spite of the still very heteronormative bent of the whole affair; in spite of the strangeness of being in a tuxedo at Top Golf; in spite of an experience that may or may not match the stories they’ve seen in the movies or heard about from parents and older siblings, they have a pretty good time.
They get dressed up, they dance, they gather with their flustered advisor to take an advisory picture, they ride in buses and limos, and they stay up late into the night with friends, celebrating relationships, savoring them, because they have an expiration date. Graduation will come soon.
And perhaps I’m writing more from my own perspective now. I’m a junior advisor so I’ll be chaperoning this year. One of the seniors said he knows we chaperones count down to midnight and just want to go home. And, speaking for myself, that’s partially true. But I also kind of relish the weirdness of being a teacher chaperone at prom, and contemplating the time that has passed since I was at prom as a teenager with so many unknowns ahead of me, many of which are now known.
I must say I take great comfort in the fact that despite our age differences, despite our vastly different locations on the rite of passage timeline, I have something in common with two of these Lovett seniors. “I like to go to bed at a reasonable time, and 2:00AM is not reasonable,” one of them said. The other said that at sleepovers he’s usually out by 1:30AM. “I need my beauty sleep,” he said. These are guys after my own 45-year-old heart. I’m definitely dreading having to stay up past midnight.