If American schools are stages where our children act out and explicate our societal values, then perhaps this week's focus isn't only about dancing pineapples and whether parents have the legal right to shield their children from harmful bubbling. Maybe we should be scrutinizing another springtime tradition: the school prom.
The word "prom" entered the American dictionary in 1894, and Dorothy Parker notably wisecracked, pre-Depression, that if all the women who went to the prom at Yale were laid end to end, she wouldn't be surprised. The prom's been an institution almost as long as there has been secondary education. And it now costs more than $1000, on average, for kids to attend.
A few years ago, high school teachers in my small town, concerned about students who felt left out of the festivities because they couldn't afford to go, dreamed up and pushed through a kind of retro prom, held in the high school gym, with $10 tickets, simple decorations, donated prizes and little perks like having teachers (in formal wear) serve as valet attendants. There was a program to recycle/swap costly prom dresses, and an announcement that this year, tuxes were optional. Staff members started urging their students: Are you going to the prom? You should!
By all accounts, the evening went well. But it wasn't repeated. Students, parents and community businesses rejected the idea after one trial. Because I was living with a prom-ager at the time, I heard plenty of scornful teen-chat about how lame prom was, how many teachers were hanging around harshing everyone's mellow, and how their limos had to drive around aimlessly in local neighborhoods in order to give students time to, you know, finish what they brought.
My own senior prom, some forty-odd years ago was a homemade-fun affair held, as they all were back then, at the neighborhood school. A girlfriend sewed my dress for me, since I had my heart set on pale peach dotted-Swiss. My dad grilled chicken for a pre-prom dinner with my friends. We drove together in another boy's family sedan. And we went to the beach afterward, staying out most of the night, talking about what came next in our lives.
Is this just starry-eyed nostalgia? Sure. The prom isn't about dancing or celebrating an important milestone any more--if it ever was. It's another thing that schools do to represent social expectations and norms. As USA Today notes, it's a coming-of-age event, the pedestrian version of a debutante ball in an era when couples are better educated and marry later. A rite of passage.
Prom as coming-out party now involves limos, days off from school, massages and pedicures--and hotel rooms. A friend who works with sexually abused teens says that prom night is often a threshold event, where uncertain teens feel compelled to pretend they're in full control of their own desires and well-being. When you've planned this night for months and spent up to $2000 on making it "perfect"--there's temptation to make the evening spectacular in every way.
It's not just the cost of prom, either--although it's worth considering what other productive, long-lasting uses that cash might be put to. In a time when we're loading up classrooms, narrowing curriculum, laying off teachers and closing schools--how could we use the quarter-million spent on a single, ultimately forgettable evening by 250 teenagers? We could buy them all an iPad 4G with money left over for drama and orchestra teachers. Most troublesome is acknowledgement that the peer pressure to overspend on prom is worst at the lowest income levels.
Why do caring, responsible parents supplement and tacitly support this excess? Because they don't want their child to sit home alone while others are partying. Balance the terror of your child spending the night unsupervised with other drunk teenagers against the ongoing heartbreak of teen loneliness and depression--and some well-meaning parents opt for the rite-of-passage defense. Everyone's doing it.
There's another ugly aspect of this expensive focus on a party: it's not any good if everyone has access. Prom Night in Mississippi--a documentary film narrated by Morgan Freeman about the first integrated prom in Charleston, Mississippi--lays this bare. Freeman offered to pay for the prom, and filmed student and community reactions to a locally historic event.
While some white teens at the school were excited about an integrated prom, seeing the move as progressive and overdue, others rejected it outright and planned the traditional whites-only prom. A teenager explains: the school population is more black than white, so the prom queen elected at an integrated school would likely be black. And that, of course, couldn't happen.
David Labaree, in a stunningly good piece on the purpose of education in America says that our historic stated purposes of education--building democratic equality and training workers for economic utility--have given way to social mobility and credentialing, a system that uses policy and rhetoric to preserve advantage for those who've always had it.
Even at the prom.