The prom is, in a way, the quintessential teenage love story. It’s mythology is larger, by far, than the event itself, thanks to the attendant rituals–which are, it seems, becoming increasingly elaborate–and countless teen movies whose plots pivot on that one night when everyone finally seems to get what they deserve. Prom is prom not for what it is–a bunch of overdressed, overeager teenagers–but because of what we want it to be. Even in my parents’ love story the prom figures in as a crucial plot point.
“I think the prom is very serious also. It’s an American ritual, it’s a rite of passage, and it’s very much a part of this country.” –Mary Ellen Mark
My own first prom was with Dave–Dave who was number 33 on the football team, who played guitar in an actual band, who, some people said, was still in love with his ex-girlfriend even though everyone suspected she’d ditched Dave for Meghan. I remember standing at my locker one day after seventh period when Dave–this guy I hardly knew but totally adored–walked up and asked me to prom. Just like that. Like Samantha in Sixteen Candles, I thought. Occasionally he’d call me after dinner and I’d sit on my bedroom floor listening as he practiced the guitar solo from “Stairway to Heaven” and trying to think of something interesting to say when the song was over. I never admitted that I didn’t know if I’d ever even heard “Stairway to Heaven” (I was a devoted Beatles fan–but Zeppelin was, at the time, way too rock-and-roll for me).
On prom day, I left school early to have my hair done. It was, I think, the only time my dad—by then principal at a neighboring high school—let me miss class without being debilitated by illness. Donna coaxed my stick-straight hair into wavy curls with the aid of about a half a can of hairspray. Afterwards, I locked my keys in the car and spent two hours in the Wal-Mart parking lot in the neighboring town. I wore a cream colored dress with silver embroidery and while I stood around waiting for Dave to pick me up, my dad told me I looked really pretty. If he was a teenage boy, he said, he’d be cooking up ways to try and steal a kiss.
If my dad had asked later why Dave stopped calling, I would’ve only been able to say that we had a nice time that night; that Dave didn’t really like to dance but was happy to sit with me in a rocking chair on the front porch of the old southern inn; that when he realized he forgot our tickets and had to run back home during dinner, his best friend’s date turned to me and said “I can tell you really like him,” and my face burned red. But I was grateful that my dad didn’t ask, that I didn’t have to say that no, he never kissed me, never even tried, that I was actually nothing like the girls he’d had crushes on high school.
This, I think, is the nature of prom, the unavoidable consequence of an event that is so laden with expectation. One is always left with the same questions I ask my students as they write their final papers: so what? who cares? It easy to be disappointed by prom, or to be cynical about the hype, the lavish spending (which, according to USA Today, is an average of $1078 per student), and the school-sanctioned homophobia. But I recently discovered this photo/video project by Mary Ellen Mark and her husband Martin Bell and I’m charmed by how seriously they treat their subject, how the kids are so self-conscious and yet so unaware of how they must be perceived by anyone other than their peers. I like how, in making a book and movie about prom, they’re actually telling a story about race and class, sex and sexuality, and that gap between who we are and who we hope others will perceive us to be. Mark’s photos capture what I didn’t understand when I was sixteen–how visible that gap is, how, perhaps, it is never more apparent than it is on prom night in America.