Maybe we need to reinvent one rite of passage: Prom

Contributing WriterMay 5, 2014 

Prom: an American institution. Even if you didn’t go, you probably have an image based on popular Hollywood mythology.

I see my senior prom, for example, like a movie.

The camera zooms in on the face of a young woman (mine). It gradually pans out to show her in a hand-sewn purple velvet dress with gold-piped princess seams. She worries about her ex-boyfriend dragging his feet when she picks him up, so she fusses with her hair a little longer. She made him take her, not being brave enough to ask someone else, go stag or even go with a group.

Cut to the Tacoma Yacht Club. The couple has been to dinner, a meal full of lengthy silences and tension. They are well beyond first kisses and first dances.

The music crescendos, all strings and melodrama. Two bodies slow-dance in twinkly light while she sings along in his ear to Sinead O’Connor’s “Nothing Compares to You.” The camera does that spinning thing around and around the couple on the floor, but sadly, there is no reconciling kiss. She breaks away in pain; this song reminds her too much of their past together.

Her date barely pursues her out to the deck overlooking the bay in the chilly evening spring air. Angry words and more tears. Her girlfriends rush into the wound as he leaves, piranha-like.

Later, the camera zooms in on his face as he sleeps in the back of her orange-and-white ’56 Chevy. She and her clean-and-sober-top-20-college-bound friends spend this night traveling around Browns Point for a nonalcoholic progressive dinner. She slams the car door at each new location, the sound punctuated by the early morning silence. He doesn’t move, pretending to be asleep in the back.


Fast-forward to my teaching career. Little did I know that I’d have the opportunity to relive that night numerous times – as a chaperone. Joy.

And of course it’s now prom season. For weeks prior to the dance, girls research dresses and dates like their grades depend on it. Boys apply lessons from health and biology classes to speculate and brag about what kind of prom night they might have. I shiver listening to the shrieking giggles and the tearful laments leading up to and on that night. Oh, the humanity!

Really though, I’m not a killjoy. This generation of teens doesn’t have much opportunity to experience such a high level of ritual anymore. I love seeing them acting differently in their tuxes and tulle, even if sometimes they feel a little awkward. There is something to be said for getting dressed up, treating a person like a princess or a gentleman, ushering them into the adult world through this fairy tale of formalities.

Unfortunately, it isn’t always a fairy tale that ends, or even begins, happily. So much status is associated with what kind of clothes you wear, who you go to prom with or having a car to drive yourself – all can elevate you to godlike heights – that it puts a lot of pressure on students. Many of them can’t attend because they can’t afford it. Sadly, prom ends up being about the “haves” and the “have-nots,” hopeful Cinderellas waiting for their princes, rather than a fun time had by all.

Why do we allow such a painful ritual? I’m guessing we just want our children to have access to our same memories – if we even remember prom at all. It’s a tradition, but traditions can be changed.

Maybe we need to get more original, more creative. Maybe we need to re-imagine this event so it could be less about adolescents striving to emulate adulthood and more about valuing who they are right now, in the moment. Maybe prom could be less fairytale and drama and more, well, reality.

Cue the camera.

Casey Silbaugh of Tacoma, an educator of 15 years, is one of five reader columnists whose work appears on this page. Email her at

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