Tuesday, May 3, 2011

High School Prom: twice as old now as we were when it happened

So I was listening to the latest episode of This American Life, and the topic this week was that annual rite of passage for every non-home schooled kid in America, the prom.    And it occurred to me, I do not believe I have ever burdened you people with the story of MY prom.  We haven't covered this, right?

Its a rite of passage for everyone, and I don't just mean those who attended.  Not going to prom is part of that process as well, whether it was your statement about your priorities or your inability to land a date.  We aren't judging.

My high school only had a Senior Prom at the time I attended the school, no Junior Prom.  While I was a cynical little monster, this was counterbalanced by a mom who had just really enjoyed the living hell out of her high school experience in a way that I found utterly baffling.  Many nights did I sit through a battery of questions about why I wasn't jazzed about pep rallies, couldn't identify the homecoming queen, and had no idea if there was sock-hop going on that Friday.  And weren't there kids at a soda fountain somewhere dancing to records?  She'd gone to high school and that's what they did, I was told.

I did not want to tell my parents that my peers were waiting for someone's parents to go out of town so they could throw parties and drink their parents booze, and that it wasn't a huge shock that, yes, we all knew exactly who used drugs at the school, and that was way, way more common than "cruising the drag" (not that we had a drag...).

I wasn't, by the way, a thug kid smoking and drinking Mad Dog behind the U-Carry-M.  I was just off doing other stuff.  I spent my weekends at the movies or renting movies or going to plays or reading books or generally being a pretentious little shit.

Perhaps because Jason had elected to skip prom (a statement of some sort, I believe), my folks were not keen on me making the same decision lest KareBear miss out on seeing at least one of her kids in a rented tux.  So it was that by October she informed me she was on the Parent's Project Prom Committee.  I wasn't 100% sure I'd be attending, but at the time I had been dating a girl since my sophomore year, and it seemed like something we'd wind up doing.

Part of being on the committee meant my folks would also be AT the Prom afterparty, which meant I could infer in October that my prom was going to be squeaky clean whether I liked it or not, so I had plenty of time to adjust to the idea, and by Senior Year, I had moved past being horrified of my folks and into finding them absolutely bizarre and hilarious, which may been worse for them.

I spent my last three years of school in an upper-middle class suburb of Houston, and out there high schools did not string the gymnasium with crepe paper and glitter balls and call it "The Enchantment Under the Sea Dance", they rented out a ballroom at a convention hotel and so we had to schlep partway into town.  I suspect the coaches didn't want us screwing up the nice gymnasium floors.

Part B of every prom by this time was a "Project Prom", a super-chaperoned affair put on by parents at the high school.  It opened just as the formal was ending and was intended to "give the kids a place to go" which translated roughly to "let's not get anybody pregnant tonight".

The dirty secret of prom, and, in fact, high school was that there were always parents who were either complicit in their kid's schemes or too drunk or distracted to notice their kid's schemes.  So kid's who were going to drink did so and showed up late to Project Prom.  Kids who were going to do drugs went ahead and did them and then showed up, their eyes red or glassy, the chaperones unawares.  Likely a lot of people fornicated that night.  I was not among them.  And just like every other day, nobody there to do the policing much seemed to notice.

Now, sometime that year, the oft-cited Peabo had been coming in to visit from Austin and he and Jill-Will (occasionally mentioned here) had really hit it off in a mutual desire to make jokes at my expense.  Other folks who've come and gone from The League of Melbotis Circle of People Who Know Me From Elsewhere attended.  Marshall.  Shannon.

And we were more or less on track.  I was planning to go, and we needed to make plans.  En route to the first meeting we were having to plan what we were doing for prom, my girlfriend turned to me and said "Oh, this guy at the restaurant I work at asked me out for this weekend and I'm going.  But," she said, "we're still dating and we're still going to the prom and everything."

I spent the meeting standing in the bathroom not really sure what to do, and getting lots of jabs about "what did you eat?" every time I'd emerge, which, I assure you, was awesome.

This many years on, I don't really remember too much about the sequence of events, but there was this period in there where, yes, that was the plan.  She was going to go to prom with me, but, you know, she was also going to date the college aged guy at the restaurant.  And then we broke up, but were still going to prom, and that seemed... awkward.  And then, man, there was no revelatory moment, no beam of sunlight or anything, but I did realize this was all just a terrible idea.

So, I got yelled at because a dress had already been bought, and prom was coming up fast, and apparently the fact that the money had been spent and, gosh, I was being childish.

Anyway, you can go to prom with friends, and so I called a lovely girl I had been friends with, and she agreed, and it was a date. 

As per my high-school girlfriend, it turned out college-aged-guy wasn't really interested in attending a high school prom.  Apparently her Plan C on this one was to point out nobody would go with me, so we might as well go together.  The fact I had a date became an issue and more yelling commenced, and suddenly I wasn't feeling so bad about the break-up.

Now, in all fairness, I was an awful boyfriend.  I was whiny and clingy, and I cried like a six year old when we broke up because, well, it was the first time someone ever had just been done with me, and that was weird. But before we broke up, I'd been 16 and 17, and who isn't badly wired at that age?  So you laugh about it now, because... holy shit.  I'd rather get punched in the eye daily for a year than go through that again, which is part of why I am still baffled by other people's fond memories of high school.

On the rebound, I also got the wrong idea about whether or not I was "going as friends" with my prom date.  Apparently that was her plan, and so when she realized the evening before prom I might have other ideas and I likely came off a bit like the wolf in those Tex Avery cartoons, things went poorly.

Luckily, my date was a good egg and showed up looking quite stunning in a red dress.  We all met at a friend's house and took pictures around the edge of the swimming pool while I remember feeling awful and sweaty in a Houston summer night wearing three layers of clothing and disposable shoes.  My date looked great, but was stone silent.  And she was stone silent pretty much through the entire evening.  I don't recall any conversation at all.  None.

To add to the fun, we went to two different high schools, and so we had dinner and two proms to hit that night, plus Project Prom.  Because of the multiple sites, we couldn't ride in the limo with everyone else, and so I have memories of just this awkward, terrible silence as we criss-crossed Houston.

Dinner was... insanely expensive.  As I was getting ready, The Admiral (then The Captain) shoved a whole bunch of cash in my pockets, told me not to buy drugs with the money and informed me "you have absolutely no idea how expensive this could get very fast".  And he was right.  I recall just staring at the dollar signs on the menu and then looking at the clientele and being vaguely embarrassed for all of us that a bunch of noisy suburban brats were going to completely ruin their very expensive evening out, and I am certain we did.

At two separate proms, my date and I sort of hovered near one another, talked to people other than ourselves, and managed to look like couple on the verge of a sad, painful divorce, I'd guess. 

We came to my high school's prom second, and I was greeted by my high school girlfriend who was with a guy from a different high school I was pretty sure she'd made out with at Math camp or something while we were dating.  I recall he was very nice, and I thought he was an okay guy, and I wasn't going to throw stones just because I wasn't at prom with the girl I'd made out with at Drama camp the summer before.

In the ballroom, I stared up at these weird paper cutouts taped to the wall of the ballroom and murmured "What the @#$% is that supposed to be?"  My art teacher was chaperoning, and informed me it was a sort of medieval dragon from a coat of arms.  Were it not for the four or five paper cut outs I would not have known, nor would I remember, that our theme was supposed to be "A Night in Camelot" or "Ye Olde Promme" or "An Enchanted Evening of The Black Plague" or whatever the hell we'd voted on.  I also don't even know now if we had Kings or Queens of prom.

We only danced to one song before hanging it up and knowing "Oh, dear Jesus, we now have to go to Project Prom until sometime around sunrise."

We met up at Jill-Will's house, and changed into shorts and t-shirts and I was informed "you are an idiot" by all the other girls in our party, which I confirmed.  Then we all headed down to the high school.

To this day, I have no idea how the parents so utterly transformed the school.  The walkway into the school was turned into the innards of a pharoah's tomb (in a stage set sort of way, but still...).  I literally had no idea where I was in parts of the building where I normally walked every day, as they'd raised false walls, etc...

It occurred to me how much of prom really wasn't about anything we had in mind.  I mean, I could appreciate all the work and effort and love that went into this sort of thing, but I was fine with a six-pack of Mug Rootbeer and a box of pretzels.   Instead we had a go-cart racetrack, a casino, laser tag, a movie room, a karaoke stage, and a dozen things I've likely forgotten.

Thirty minutes in, and my date abandoned me at the roulette table.  We'd been issued some fake money with which to gamble, and I figured I'd see how fast I could blow it so I didn't have to carry the cash around.  Losing my date would have been movie perfect had liquor and cigarettes been allowed on campus, at least felt a bit more romantic about it than I did under the blue glow of fluorescent lighting giving somebody's dad my fake money.  I genuinely did at least like the girl as a person, and I felt pretty rotten about ruining her prom, but far be it from me to be an adult and have a conversation to try to mend things, even just a little.  The least I could do was let her have a good time by mostly disappearing.

The image that sticks out in my mind of the evening is walking around the corner to where The KareBear and the Admiral were manning the Martian Moonbounce, one of those enormous, inflatable "jumpy castles".  The picture I have in my head is of my dad, smiling and really enjoying himself, and really glad to see his kid show up at The Martian Moonbounce.  He's wearing deely-bobbers, those antennas on springs attached to a headband, just happy as a clam to be involved, and I'm not embarrassed at all.  The Old Man is insane, and he's in his element.

Perhaps its telling that less striking was my mother in deely-bobbers, for whom silly headgear has always been a feature as teacher, Cub Scout leader, and generally good sport. 

"How's your night going?" The Admiral asked.
"Real good.  Its fun," I said.
"Where's your date?"
"I have no idea.  Maybe with Jill?"
"Do you want to hop in the Moonbounce?"
"Can I have your deely-bobbers?"

And so, alone I crawled into the Martian Moonbounce with my deely-bobbers and I hopped and hopped until my legs got tired.

That evening, I would be asked to sing karaoke to Led Zeppelin's "Whole Lotta Love" which I had never heard before, and so those assembled heard this monologue about how "I have never heard this song before.  Its pretty good.  What album is it on?  I guess I don't have this album.  Boy, once you're up here, these songs seem just really, really long."  And, yes, I was wearing the deely-bobbers.

In the wee hours they held a raffle, which was one of the ways they kept you there.  You could not collect your prize without being there.  The girl (a great friend, actually) who won the prize directly before they pulled my number won a cruise for four.  A cruise.  I won a Dirt Devil hand-vac.  Given my aversion to sunlight and the years of use I got out of the hand-vac, I think I won.

As the sun came up, I found my date and drove her to my folk's house and we parted ways without talking much.  

Monday was traditionally Senior Skip Day, when nobody was expected to show up and everyone went to the lake or the ocean.  I had to take the AP test, and when I was admitted to UT, I comped out of a whole bunch of English credits.  In the afternoon we went to the lake, but it was kind of boring and nobody swam.  The lake looked really gross.

Senior year ended.  My prom date re-emerged, actually pursuing my brother over the course of the summer, and I was told at Christmas by her friends, my high school friends who went to school with her, that my brother was a jerk for not taking her out.  Somehow, it was implied, we were bad people.

Somewhere there is a video tape of that prom, shot by a professional agency.  I'm in it for two seconds or so.  I look pretty chipper.  I'm sorry to tell my folks, I think I taped over it.

Now I'm Facebook friends with my prom date.  I'm Facebook friends with my high school girlfriend, too.  And the girl I made out with at Drama Camp.  I don't know what happened to the deely-bobbers.


emily said...

Thanks for sharing your prom experience. I enjoyed reading it and feeling grateful to be one of those that skipped both junior and senior year proms. I watched video of our senior prom and cried ........tears of joy that I was not subjected to what turned out to be the Popular Kids Dance.

I should also mention that I was dateless because my 'boyfriend' found out that I spent 2 hours after work one night chatting it up with the boy I really wanted to go with. Apparently that was not a good idea. I also later realized that this boy would never have attended my measly prom anyway.

It was all for the best. All of it.

Steven said...

My high school only had a Senior Prom at the time I attended the school, no Junior Prom. While I was a cynical little monster, this was counterbalanced by a mom who had just really enjoyed the living hell out of her high school experience in a way that I found utterly baffling.

Yeah, that one.

The League said...

"This American Life" made a good point that prom is a rite of passage and a capstone on a certain portion of our lives. Its a natural denouement for our young romantic lives, and so its always interesting to learn what was happening with each person at that time. A lot of stories (most of them) seem to end badly, and I get the eye-rolling at the event.

For me, by that time in my senior year I was mentally separating from a life I knew I was leaving behind in August. And the messiness of the whole event and the end of a first romance was just all the more impetus to get out and start over.

I was fortunate to either go through high school unawares of the popularity issues at school or at a school that didn't have a crowd deemed "popular". I believed that concept an invention of TV for a long time, and so I didn't really view prom as somebody else's, but I was wary of something so traditional.

Paul Toohey said...

"prom is a rite of passage and a capstone on a certain portion of our lives. Its a natural denouement for our young romantic lives"

Might explain a lot for me...seeing as I never went to Prom and had no desire to.

J.S. said...

I'm not sure that not going to prom was a statement on my part. Thre were probably at least two girls that I wanted to go with, but both of them had other dates, and it seemed too expensive and involved to just "go with a friend." So I didn't go. (Got to go out with one of those girls later, though, and that was nice) Anyway, somehow missing prom doesn't even come close to ranking on any sort of "Life's Regrets" list for me.
And I'm not sure I was pursued. Maybe noticed, but pursued? Sounds unlikely...

The League said...

Oh, Lord, man... I got read the riot act one night over holiday break 93-94 over your disinterest. It was totally dumb.

cardboardbelts said...

I liked junior and senior prom. I went to three. It was silly (one was at the zoo!), romantic, and appropriately dramatic. Plus, I can't seem to find any reason to hate on an event that requires wearing a new dress.

The League said...

A lot of people have a lot of different experiences, but as someone once said about why so much TV and so many movies focus on high school, its also the last thing we all have in common. And prom is this one thing we all have some sort of story about, maybe the last story from high school for all of us.

And I get why people hate it. And I get why people love it. But we all have an opinion.

Paul Toohey said...

Not sure about The League, but I don't really need a reason to wear a new dress...