Sunday, October 16, 2005

New Millenium Prom Night

I remember my prom night. I went with Wayne B, a hunk who graduated a couple of years before me. Prior to prom, Wayne and I had exchanged maybe ten complete sentences. We arranged things at a party— the motivation for pairing up coming in the wake of my former short-term boyfriend reconciling with his ex. I bought a dress from a retail store called “Judy’s,” I think it cost $80, maybe $100 tops. I bought a pair of agonizing shoes from a cheap mall store, and my big extravagance was spending the time to tan and put mayonnaise in my hair (for shine). We drove in his El Camino, and ended up meeting some friends at the beach afterward. We were home by 4:00AM or so, and while there was some alcohol, and probably other minor recreation, it was pretty tame by today’s standards. Wayne and I didn’t hit it off in any kind of meaningful way.

Why am I reminiscing? An article about an
east-coast principal who cancelled “prom night” has caught my eye.

The principal cancelled the prom mainly in response to (and I love this) “the flaunting of affluence” that has come to characterize a large constituency of students who attend prom. Last year some students of this school in Long Island had pooled together a $10,000 down payment (total rental of $20,000) for a house in the Hamptons in which to host an after-prom party. What the f*@#$???? One student interviewed noted that it was not uncommon for $1,000 to be spent on a dress. This is a dress that for all intents and purposes is worn for one night. The principal noted in his letter to parents that students often arrived shnockered after being treated to booze-cruise rentals and fully-stocked limousine rides.

The principal noted that: "It is not primarily the sex/booze/drugs that surround this event, as problematic as they might be; it is rather the flaunting of affluence, assuming exaggerated expenses, a pursuit of vanity for vanity's sake — in a word, financial decadence."

The backlash from the cancellation has made national news. What possesses the parents of these students? I think of the disasters that have plagued this year, the tsunami, Katrina, the recent earthquake in Pakistan. What about marking the rite of passage of a prom night by wearing a nice, but reasonably-priced outfit, meeting in a designated after-prom hall, and donating the atrocious party fund on some social action?

Some parents are indignant: “I don't think they have a right to judge what goes on after the prom,” says one. Others admire the principal’s perspective: “It's just what it's evolved into. It's not what it was 20, 30 or 40 years ago. It's turned into something it wasn't originally intended to be."

I admire the principal and what he is trying to say to the community. American education is funded by tax dollars (a flawed system based on property taxes and assessments), and I don’t think conspicuous consumption, hierarchal displays and a culture of waste should be underwritten by an institution that is so maligned by today’s parents. I’ve heard a number of adults complain today that “the teachers just don’t teach,” or “if I had as low a success rate in my job as teachers do with their students, I’d be fired.” And yet one looks at today’s youth, and the undeniable focus on image … the necessary “gadgets” like cell phones (the teeny, expensive, camera ones with color display), iPods, portable DVDs and laptops, clothes from Nordstrom or J. Crew, and you wonder what we’re formulating in the minds of our youth.

Is consumerism the only mark of “cool” these days? Hey, I haven’t forgotten the stress of fitting in, or wearing the right clothes, but the ante has been upped exponentially. The saying goes that children learn what they live … what is being lived in America’s homes?


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