Prom: An American Tradition Gone Awry

The current concept of prom just seems so empty. Teenagers get dressed up to go to a dance at a fancy location. It encourages social inclusion or exclusion based on your ability or inability to snag a date.
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The other day my family went looking for prom dresses for my sister. The first place we stopped was an expensive boutique with thousands of dresses. As I was about to step inside, Adrianna remarked casually, "This place is really crowded with dresses."

"What do you mean?" I asked, assuming she meant densely packed on hangers, or maybe not much aisle space.

"You'll see."

As it turned out, the store was a claustrophobe's nightmare -- a thin bit of waddling space alongside giant round racks of dresses zipped up in plastic garment bags, every color and style imaginable. By the time we walked out (no dress in hand), it felt like Adrianna had tried every single one of them.

She finally found her dream dress (a gleaming dark blue one-shoulder) in a less specialized department store (where the dresses also cost half as much). The emphasis was on finding something that would be long enough to also wear at a piano recital.

What's funny about my sister going prom dress shopping with the rest of my family in tow is that my parents were never that big on prom. More specifically, my dad didn't go to his because he wasn't into his high school social scene (or, as my sister translates it, he was a social outcast), and my mom grew up in '70s Communist China, where high school dance opportunities were pretty nonexistent.

The American tradition of high school prom, however, seems to have found a believer in my older sister -- along with what seems like every American news organization. World News with Diane Sawyer on ABC broadcast not one, but two prom stories -- the first to congratulate all the brave souls asking their significant others to go to prom with them, the second as a follow-up story on a boy who was suspended for trespassing on school property to post giant cardboard letters on the side of the school asking his girlfriend to go to prom with him. He's now become a celebrity, having appeared on Today, Jimmy Kimmel, and others.

As a writer, I get it. Prom has all the elements of a popular story. It reeks of all-Americanness, tension, drama. It has romance. Pretty dresses. Dancing. Limos. High school. Coming of age. But couldn't we get all that (maybe minus dancing, pretty dresses, and limos) with something that didn't cost schools tens of thousands of dollars, students valuable hours in fundraising, working-class families worry over how they could afford dress and tuxedo shopping? Maybe an awards ceremony or gala to honor the unique in-school and extracurricular accomplishments of seniors? If you wanted, you could still dress up, invite a guest or two, roll out a red carpet, have music, call it prom... But you would be congratulating and evaluating people based on what they've done for others, not just how they're dressed or who they're going with.

The current concept of prom just seems so empty. Teenagers get dressed up to go to a dance at a fancy location. It encourages social inclusion or exclusion based on your ability or inability to snag a date. I feel like schools shouldn't be taking a role in supporting dating this way -- even for seniors. And it starts way earlier. People often start by going to their junior high dances in seventh grade, maybe followed by a formal dance (my sister's was on a dinner boat in Seattle) in ninth, homecoming every year through high school, and of course, the jewel in the crown, prom in senior year. I mention this to people I've met in Europe -- this system of dances and social events -- and I haven't heard of any equivalent.

So how did the prom come about? According to this interesting article from Mental Floss, the prom actually originated in the 1800s as an effort to teach etiquette and good manners to college students. It migrated to high school students with the same goal. Mental Floss described it this way: "the senior class, dressed in their "Sunday best," gathered in the gym for tea and light refreshments, socializing and dancing under crepe paper streamers and the watchful eyes of chaperones." It only started migrating to fancy locations in the 1950s, and in the 1980s, the prom became the giant deal that it is today, with students voting on where they want their prom to be... Sometimes two years in advance. Paying hundreds -- or thousands -- of dollars for dresses and dinner and pictures and corsages.

Imagine if we took all of that effort, money, and thought that goes into designing a high school student's in-school social experience, and put that into designing a student's educational experience. There's nothing wrong with getting dressed up and having a celebration of your high school life, whether in a dance or a ceremony or a conference... I just take issue with the American obsession that is the modern day prom.

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