Lest this turn into a 1,000-word discourse about the fragility of my ego and desire to be liked when I was a teenager that probably still continues to this day, I’m just going to simply state that from the moment I set foot in my high school as a freshman, I looked forward to going to my senior prom. This is probably because I watched every John Hughes movie too many times, but since we held our prom on the Thursday before graduation, I felt like it was a truly special occasion, that “last hurrah” before heading off into parts unknown. And while that attitude probably set me up for a huge letdown (as proms often are), I actually had a really good time. Granted, I’ve written more exciting fiction than what actually happened on my prom night, but that’s why it’s fiction, right?
Anyway, I’ve got prom on my mind for a couple of reasons. First, I’m about two weeks away from chaperoning my seventh consecutive junior-senior prom. People I work with always seem astounded when I mention this, especially since I also chaperone the Homecoming Dance, but when I explain to them that not only do I get plenty of coverage for the yearbook but there’s tons of free food and chaperoning both dances gets me out of taking tickets at games, which is something I loathe. Second, this piece on Jezebel caught my eye: “Prom is Even More Magical When the Economy is Shit.” It seems that despite the bad economy, spending on prom (mostly by girls and their parents) is up to an average of $1,078.
Most of that spending, by the way, is by families that are decidedly middle-class. According to the article, rich families don’t really spend a lot on the prom:
Actually, those families spend less than parents in lower income brackets: according to a Visa phone survey, families that make between $20,000 and $29,999 a year will spend more than $2,600, twice the national average, while wealthier families plan to spend between $700 and $1,000 on clothing, accessories, grooming, dinner, and transportation.
Now, I suppose I could spend the rest of this post decrying the misplaced priorities of parents in the middle class, or how prom perpetuates the notion that a teenager’s social life is more important than her academic career, or something about a class war or war on women or mommy wars or war wars. But as I was reading the piece — and realizing that thinking about what I paid for my prom was useless since I am a guy — I began to think more about prom itself. How did it begin and why is it still part of our schools’ culture?
I checked out Wikipedia — as you do — and didn’t find much, but a quick Google of “history of prom” turned up this Time piece, which explains:
The word prom is short for promenade, the formal, introductory parading of guests at a party. The prom can be traced back to the simple co-ed banquets that 19th century American universities held for each year’s graduating class. A growing teenage culture pushed proms younger and younger, and by the 1940s the adolescent dance we know today had almost entirely taken hold.
So, for the most part, this is something that really hasn’t changed much. It started as a celebration for a graduating class and more or less continues to be a celebration for a graduating class (come colleges, or at least some university fraternities and sororities do still hold “formals” at the end of a school year, a couple of which I attended due to the fact that I dated a sorority girl when I was in college). It probably continues, at least on a basic level, because it’s a tradition; however, unlike the traditions of the “Well, we’ve always done it this way” type, it’s a tradition that many students always look forward to and not something they’re forced to endure (i.e., square dancing in gym class).
When you’ve been to as many proms as I have, the night tends to lose its magic. Then again, the night isn’t supposed to be magical for the teachers chaperoning (and in all honesty, the free food is really a big draw), so my jaded views of decorations and suggestive dancing (which I find unoriginal and boring more than I find scandalous, btw) aren’t relevant. If anything, the night is one of the shining examples of how to at least some kids, school–as a building they go to with hundreds of other people–is important. A prom done right, no matter where it is held (the high school I went to chose a catering hall; the high school where I teach holds the prom in the gym), is planned by a committee of students with an adviser who acts as an overseer or is there to supervise/sign off on things. So in a way, it’s a classic student-centered/student-owned activity (and yes, one that has its pitfalls, which I talked a little bit about in a post on Pop Culture Affidavit a couple of years ago).
And if you’re thinking of a school as a community, perhaps within a larger community, it can wind up being very important. I teach in an area that has a decidedly rural population and both of our school dances are well attended because … well, I hate to say that there’s nothing better to do around there, but to a certain extent the school does still hold onto its “center of town” status and there aren’t that many other opportunities for a couple to really “do it up” during a school year. Plus, as much as we as teachers like to complain about our students’ social lives overshadowing their lack of performance in class, the social aspect of school is just as important as the academic or even athletic/activity aspect.
We want school to be a good experience, and a good experience would definitely be a healthy balance between all of the aspects–athletics, activities, academics, and student life. The prom is so ingrained in teenage culture that it really has to be part of high school; I’d even go as far as to say that some teenagers need it. So I can’t begrudge someone for wanting to strive for a fantasy of sorts (even though they may wind up disappointed) and I definitely can’t perpetuate our culture’s fascination with judging the ways in which people spend their money. Prom is, it always will be, and well, there’s really nothing wrong with that.