Hairdressers and limousines, tuxedos and evening gowns, proud fathers and crying mothers, meetings with lawyers. A wedding? No, it's the primal source of stress in American life: the high school prom. Here are clumsy 18-year-olds pretending to be loving couples, photographed in front of magnolias and azaleas, defenseless targets of the romantic projections of their parents.
But if high school can be hell, luckily there is the purgatory of middle school. In this hormone-free zone for two blinks are children between 11 and 14, still in their wonder years. The playful atmospherics of middle school are a kind of soft introduction to the rigors of high school. Here kids learn the chemical reactions of photosynthesis by singing a happy song. Or the history of Mesopotamia becomes a friendly travel guide. They still draw and paint and play with clay. My daughter and her friends lose themselves in art projects that introduce them gingerly to the challenging material that lies ahead.
In the Netherlands, my sons at the same age were thrown into the deep end right away, dispatched on a real survival trip into a rugged wilderness or told to bicycle through Amsterdam at midnight. In America, my dear daughter copes with the threats of impending puberty with the protection of nurturing teachers and an occasional hug.
But the end of this stress-free idyll is already in sight. The transition to high school announced itself with a hard knock in the form of the middle school prom. Fourteen-year-olds take this rite of premature passage very seriously. Boys make a clumsy and excessive "promposal," for example by risking their lives to hang a flag on the roof of the school. Girls come home crying because they are either not asked--or asked by four guys at the same time. Guys get anxiety attacks over the idea that they have to ask a girl, and girls shyly accept or not accept them. Parents find themselves suddenly writing extortionate checks for dresses and corsages for little kids who still have bruises on their knees. In short, all the misery of adult life is compressed into a single evening.
Last week, the school board happily solved it all. We got a letter saying that students should not worry so much. Having an escort was not necessary, everyone could come, and it did not have to bankrupt the parents. On the contrary. If a child wanted to come in pajamas, that was fine. "Pajamas?" asks my daughter, "What are they thinking?" Of course not. She wants a party dress, preferably as short as possible.
A few days before the prom comes another letter from the school, this time with a new heading: Revised Dress Code. It is now required to wear Spandex. I had never heard of Spandex. But I now know it means if you look under a skirt, you see not much of a bottom or much of anything else compromising, for that matter.
The night of the prom, my daughter and her friends stand before the mirror, modeling their dresses for each other and making quite a dent in my makeup drawer. Then, giggling, they pull on their Spandex pants. But the mystery to me is still ...Why Spandex?
It's 7 P.M., time for the party. The first date of my daughter's life is standing on the sidewalk. A shy boy wearing a tie and holding a bouquet of flowers. An hour later, my daughter sends a selfie from the prom. Along with the other 14-year-olds, she is on an inflatable Bouncy Room in the gymnasium. High in the sky, somewhere in that elusive moment between childhood and adulthood, between heaven and earth, they float in their too-short dresses. Or, rather, in their Spandex underpants.