The 3:30 Project is a collaborative blog by three life-long friends: Maggie, Mary Margaret and Jillian. It’s prom season, and we’ve been seeing fresh-faced teens in formal wear at all our favorite mid-range restaurants all month. Today we’re sharing our reflections on that magical(?) night: the prom.
Unhappiness is the gap between our expectations and our reality.
How odd that I don’t remember where I first heard this concept, because it’s become one of my mantras. It’s something I remind myself of again and again. I offer it up as advice to friends, family, acquaintances. Did I hear it in yoga class? From someone at church? No telling. But I continually revisit it, not simply as a pain avoidance practice, fleeing unhappiness. I actually want to remember it so I can be better to other people.
I attended Junior prom at age 17, wearing a lime green sheath dress, shimmering like mermaid’s scales—the dress from my sister Emily’s Senior Prom. A hand-me-down by choice, since I delighted in almost anything that allowed me to follow in my sister’s footsteps. At the end of the night, I received my first kiss while Eric Clapton’s “Wonderful Tonight” played in the background. My corsage dissolved in a rainstorm as we dashed to our ride, but basking in the previous moment, I didn’t care. The night felt…shiny? Undoubtedly a tough act to follow.
My Senior Prom I attended with the same boy, my boyfriend of over a year by then, who I am unembarrassed to say that I loved. This time I wore Dorothy’s deep midnight blue, rhinestone-flecked prom dress, just as obsessed at age 18 as I am now with garments that “have a past.” When I want to feel beautiful or denote significance on an event, I often forgo the new, favoring clothing I’ve imbued with meaning based on tradition, past-owners, and histories of wearing. Because senior prom is supposed to be meaningful somehow, right? According to…wait, who, exactly? Sub-par teen movies and young adult fiction? Anecdote? Culturally it seems like something we’ve decided is either magical or a trainwreck with no middle ground. In fiction, it’s Cinderella’s romance or Carrie’s buckets of blood, choreographed dance numbers or fiery teen car crashes, but for something so dramatically inflated, I find people’s real-life recollections more along the lines of, “meh,” “don’t remember,” “didn’t go” or some tale designed for a laugh at the expense of one’s awkward teenage self.
When I look back at my Senior prom, I feel ashamed. No, I didn’t drink, do drugs, get my cherry popped by a loser, get pregnant; I treated someone unfairly and unkindly.
You see, on the way to the venue in downtown Atlanta, my boyfriend and I got lost. We ended up in a completely unfamiliar part of town, at night, feeling unsafe, with a woman walking by that could only have been a member of the world’s oldest profession. I got upset; I mean, how could he have allowed this on what should have been such a memorable, meaningful evening?
I don’t remember my exact words, but I remember punishing him—becoming ice. Upon finally arriving at prom, my arms tightly folded, I lasted fifteen minutes, zero dancing, before insisting on leaving. The evening was already ruined, right? Once home, I slammed the car door shut behind me. I wonder, did we both cry on our own afterwards?
This wasn’t our dramatic end, by any means; we dated another year. It was a blip, a spat, but one I regret, wishing I could swap out me now with me then. I’d like to think now I’d find humor in the situation, attempt to make it memorable in its dysfunction—a great story to tell later! I’d like to think that I understand more how attachment to unrealistic expectations is a slippery slope to disappointment and unhappiness. Seduced by fiction, I didn’t expect perfection, but I expected prom to be important somehow in its singularity. I opted for the idea that I needed to HAVE AN EXPERIENCE, rather than simply having an experience with someone I loved.
There’s no swap-outs, though, and I can only apologize for behaving badly and do what the subway intercom warns me: “mind the gap” – the gap between my expectations of what should happen, these brain-bound fictions and emotions, with the bewildering truth of my actual moment by moment existence.
If I could plan the prom
According to Wikipedia (which, I know, any high school teacher worth their salt would not accept as a source), the High School Prom has been a first formal dance for young people in America for at least 100 years. In the 1950s (also according to Wikipedia) the prom became a way to enforce hetero-normative behavior by encouraging young men and women to pair off and by crowning a Prom King and Queen.
Given this mildly problematic history and the fact that (for me at least), my high school prom was both my first and last formal affair, I would like to offer a redesigned prom.
First, fix the budget.
It’s way out of control. You shouldn’t spend as much on your prom as you do on your wedding. I know it’s a special day, but it’s not that special. Let’s keep it small.
Second, the activities.
We do not have a culture of dancing, so (in my experience) when you arrive at the prom, people are either grinding like they would at a club (which, you may note, is not a formal atmosphere) or looking at each other thinking “I really don’t want to grind…why is this fun?”
At the prom, you have a captive audience of young people. Teach them how to dance! Why? Because dancing is SO fun. And I think people want to know how to waltz, tango, cha cha, line dance, etc. (I know I do!) Just think about the popularity of songs that have the dancing instructions in the lyrics. They’re the best. The absolute best. Everyone knows what to do when YMCA, the chicken dance, or cha cha slide starts playing. Don’t you want to feel like that about all the dances?
Third – GAMES!
The new Prom should have games! Why? Because there are people who don’t like to dance and will want an escape during the slow dances. Save the money you’d normally spend on a fancy ballroom and get some arcade games, an air hockey table, corn hole, darts, laser tag, BINGO.
I believe the prom is an opportunity to change our society. Based on what I see on commercials, the best way to have fun in America is by getting wasted, which is a huge lie and leads to bad decisions, drunk driving and a culture of people who rely on alcohol to survive social situations. At the prom, you have an eager audience of young people who want to know how adults have fun – GIVE THEM EMPOWERING OPTIONS!
Last – Celebrate Everyone!
We live in a democratic society, so I think we should forget the Prom King and Queen. Prom should be for everyone. And, in my opinion, popularity contests are bad for the soul. We should let them go the way of the desktop computer and leave them in the past.
Enjoy the New Prom.
My prom story is the kind of prom story they make movies about. I was a shy, nerdy girl, who got asked to the prom by the most popular guy in school. And it wasn’t even a trick! It was true love, and it was magical.
He didn’t bring me a corsage or anything. And we didn’t go to a fancy restaurant in a limousine – he served me leftovers on his couch. At the prom, we didn’t dance – in fact, we spent most of the time standing outside the boys’ bathroom. But at the end the night, he took me home with him and told me he loved me. I fell asleep in his arms.
I should maybe mention that at the time this happened, I was 30 years old and 6 months pregnant, and that my hot date was the most popular teacher and also my husband. (It was two weeks ago.) So, maybe it wasn’t quite the stuff of movies. But it was perfect to me.
This prom was held at the aquarium’s ballroom, with two giant windows into the tanks, giving it the most spectacular ambiance you can imagine. It looked like how the proms look on popular teen tv shows – pure fantasy – nothing like the plain, dull ballrooms of my high school days.
Our post outside the boys’ bathroom gave me the perfect vantage point to survey all the spectacular fashions as the girls and their dates paraded by. And WOW – the fashions for teenagers today make the teen fashions of the aughts look downright sad. There were almost as many different shapes, necklines, fabrics, embellishments and colors as there were girls at the dance. There were trumpet skirts, there were huge, sculpted ruffles, illusion necklines, beaded overlays, embroidered bodices, there were dramatic sweetheart necklines, plunging v’s, off-the-shoulder, there were even long-sleeved dresses. It was like I was watching the red carpet at the Oscars.
Overall, the whole event was just beautiful to behold. Inside the ballroom, groups of kids were taking their turns at the tank windows, watching giant sharks and manta rays glide past them like an absolute dreamscape. And I was just so happy for them, that they got to have this extraordinary, unforgettable experience at the prom.
But then at the end of the evening, when the lights came up, and everyone was clearing out, I started to notice a few other things. One of my husband’s students came up and told him he’d missed his chance with a girl he liked, and confessed his anxiety over his parents’ pressure to find a life partner when his life is only beginning. I overheard a girl talking about whether she should leave with a different group than the one she came with. And scattered around the room were little huddles of girls, each with a wet-faced crier in the middle, her sweaty teen heart-breaker long gone.
And I was just so happy for myself, that I didn’t have to be a teenager at this extraordinary, unforgettable prom.
Even with all that beauty and magic, it still gets better, kids. One day you’ll eat leftovers on the couch with someone, and it’ll be so much better than even this.