As the lights began to flicker on my high school years, one important experience remained. The football games, the annual bonfire, the dances were all behind me. But the social El Dorado remained, the Dance of dances, the Prom. My friend’s mother insisted that he secure a date for the Grand Occasion, even though he had never before had a date. She made him get on the phone in front of her, and call at least ten girls. They all said no. Well actually, the dial tone said no. He had a way of pretending to dial a number, and then faking the conversation.
“May I speak to Amanda?” he would politely intone, “Hi, Amanda, this is Frank. I was wondering if you might like to go to prom with me. . .”
The one-sided conversation unfolded with the earpiece pressed firmly to his head to muffle sound. His mother worked placidly on the family dinner, satisfied that her son was at least trying. He had determined the final score before starting: four girls would already be going with someone else, three girls wouldn’t be going at all due to family conflicts, and three girls would have pending invitations. The variety of fictional responses gave the charade an illusion of reality. By the tenth faux call he was off the hook.
I was another prom dropout; my imagination had made the event seem too gigantic to deal with. The prom of my mind was a towering Goliath. I retreated from its looming shadow to the false comfort of familiar distractions. Prom – as I viewed it – wasn’t for the humble likes of me. The others in my small circle of friends chose to see it the same way. If high school had been a movie, we would have cast ourselves as extras, faceless figures filling in the background for the stars. Frank talked to the dial tone because he feared the sound of a real “no.” We shared his fear. The sidelines of isolationist obscurity were a boring but safe alternative.
Our unfounded fears had an irony; prom really wasn’t that big a big deal in those days. It was basically just a dance with some extra trimmings. You picked up your date in the family car. The venue was the school gym. Other than the formal wear and corsage, there were no expenses. You got home well before midnight.
Now the exaggerated prom perspective my friends and I once entertained has gone viral. Prom is a mouse that’s roaring. Nothing about the modern prom can be called simple. The modest chiffon dresses of the past have been replaced by gaudy lookalikes of what saloon girls wear in TV westerns. Prom couples now cruise in limos. Five star dining precedes the event, and an expensive overnight excursion (post-prom) is the follow up.
The prom invitation is no longer a two-minute conversation between classes or over the phone. Elements that were once reserved for movie musicals are routine. Excess is the new norm: a large supporting cast of smiling well-wishers, splashes of flowers, perhaps a billboard, maybe some fireworks. Think Glee in overdrive, and you’ve got the idea. One enterprising young man painted his invite in gigantic letters on his prospective date’s street. Naturally, her driveway was lined with flowers and other ornamentation. The old fashioned, mere asking of the question seems as extinct as Tyrannosaurus Rex.
Prom has become a tornado of fantastic expectations. It’s a glistening, self-validating, overwhelming summit. It’s an existential leap of faith. It’s a one-item bucket list.
Consequently, the stakes are ever escalating. No level of big seems big enough.
Case in point: A young man in Pennsylvania is stopped by a school administrator on his way into an assembly where Miss America is slated to speak. He is warned that word has gotten around of his plans to ask Miss America to be his date at the prom. The administrator tells him that such a question on his part will be seen as a disruption, and will result in disciplinary action. But according to the young man, he’s “already in the zone,” so he goes ahead and makes his proposal during the question-answer part of the presentation – and immediately steps into a zone far different than the one in which he imagines himself to be situated.
Andy Warhol’s “fifteen minutes of fame” descends with a crash, kicking off with a three day suspension for having ignored the warning. Miss America has politely declined, citing her busy travel schedule. She does however issue a statement requesting that the suspension be rescinded. It isn’t. Next, potential prom dates start crawling out of the woodwork. Women of the social media world (one hundred light years north of Mars) express their wish to accompany him. The Bunny Ranch Brothel in Nevada offers to send two dates. The young man says no thank you (Apparently at least a few boundaries remain, in this case his mother.) Finally, Khloe Kardashian offers to go with him (presumably bringing her camera crew). The young man wisely takes a pass on that option as well. But what opened this weird floodgate? If prom is truly the path to self-validation, a celebrity date is almost mandatory.
Paralleling the Miss America fiasco is another celebrity prom story, this one from Philadelphia. The country club prom of an elite girls academy was shaken up when Olympic gold medalist (and rock band member) Shaun White showed up at the invitation of one Carly Monzo, a student and avid fan. Ms. Monzo had recorded an invitational video, “GoProM?” which she placed online. Naturally, she used Mr. White’s music in her production. He immediately saw the video, and decided to pop in at the Huge Happening with his band. One can only imagine the existential energy that must have charged through the teenager when her idol made his appearance. In classic teen talk, Ms. Monzo expressed her elation: “All of my friends were crying for me and I was like ‘Carly, don’t lose it,'” she gushed.
The oversized concept of prom and its social/spiritual significance can lead to some frightening excesses. A sixteen year-old Connecticut girl was stabbed to death at school this prom season for turning down an invitation. In olden days, such a rejection might have caused a guy to hit the soda shop to drown his fleeting sorrows in a thick chocolate malt. He might even have indulged in one of the heartbreak hits like The Beach Boys’ timeless “Warmth of the Sun:” “. . . I cried when she said ‘I don’t feel the same way.’ Still I have the warmth of the sun within me tonight. . .” The theme of such songs was that you get over life’s little hurts – without turning into Jack the Ripper. But a prom magnified beyond reasonable proportions – like any other distorted mindset – can lead to unpredictable – and sometimes dangerous – places.
Prom is of course only a small example of the ways in which we often see things the way we choose to see them. Not the way they actually are. This perspective can result in stunning letdowns. When we don’t get the validating Zing we seek, when the fantasy coach that would whisk us into our highest visions turns out to be just a pumpkin, we end up as squashed as a jack-o-lantern on Halloween night. Isn’t it healthier to open ourselves to seeing the real world? In that way, we can find and develop our place in it. A warning to existential divers: there’s no water in that pool.