Whether your child is looking down from a rope and harness up in the trees, or just the few extra inches of a pair of heels, she is in the process of making herself different, at least for a few hours.
You don’t have to attend prom (as a parent) to see it. Just log into Facebook and check out all the photos.
This weekend, I can see Ipswich High School’s juniors and their dates, congregated at the Hellenic Center in Ipswich. Next month, it will be seniors and their dates, standing against the backdrop of hills overlooking Crane Beach, strolling beneath the floral arch at Castle Hill at the Trustees of Reservations property in Ipswich. (Back in Ohio, 30 years ago, we gathered in our school’s cafeteria with streamers, disco lights and a DJ. Yawn.)
Yes, this past weekend was one of two prom nights in our town. For a many 16- and 17-year-olds (and their dates) it was a magical evening. Boys in tuxes or suits. Girls in gowns and heels. Flowers. Photos. Hairdos. Nails. Rides. Dancing. Music. Social dynamics. Parties. Sleepovers. Memories.
Of course, we know some of what’s beneath these beautiful and awkward almost-grownup appearances. These are the tall verging-on-adulthood versions of imperfect, loveable-and-demanding children we have known since they were babies and toddlers. We witnessed as they learned to walk, ride a bike, read a book. We cringed and coached as they made fast friends, become bitter enemies, reconciled again. We cheered as they played on fields together, applauded as they stood side by side in band or chorus. We knew when they borrowed each others’ notes or called and texted each other late at night. We sighed as they fell in love, grew crushes, exchanged first kisses and maybe shared first lovemaking. We clenched fists and gave them space to shepherd each other through personal disasters, urge each other past finish lines and final exams. Now we grow wide-eyed and reflective as they gather for a celebration of bright youthful lives.
Safety, of course, is always an issue. High spirits. Disbelief in mortality. Taking chances and not believing in consequences. Driving accidents. After-parties.
For one night, parents held their breath and prayed for silence instead of the screams of ambulances, police sirens and news headlines. Prayers answered: it’s been a quiet weekend in our town. Phew!
Though it wasn’t Sarah’s prom weekend, she was out shopping for her gown for senior prom. That’s next month. Dad took her (and other girlfriends) shopping for dresses.
RYLA and ROPES COURSES
Last year at this time? Parents slept with a phone beside the bed, or didn’t sleep at all, waiting for morning to come and the dance night to be safely over. It was one the few weekends last year when we actually slept soundly. We knew where Sarah was, and that she was safe. She didn’t attend her junior prom.
Instead, last year Sarah spent her weekend at a retreat called RYLA (Rotary Youth Leadership). It’s held at rustic camp with cabins. There she met students from several states and many different backgrounds. Kids from rural areas, suburbs and inner city settings. Kids who live below the poverty line and kids who have everything they need materially. Kids who were gay or straight. Artists and jocks and former gang members and abuse survivors and recovering addicts and scholars. Kids who learn, on this weekend, to see past the surface of each other — beyond skin and gender and socioeconomics and language and other preconceived notions of each other — to hidden scars and inner beauty, to the depth of each others’ potential. Kids with character, who want a chance to learn and demonstrate leadership in their own communities: brought together through RYLA.
All participants were high school juniors – and they’d invested all kinds of energy, and made many different sorts of sacrifices – to attend this weekend-long experience. One of Sarah’s sacrifices? She gave up the dreamy night of junior prom.
Dozens of kids were grouped into “families.” They spent the weekend as teams, coming to know and care for each other. They did everything together, including sharing stories that remain private. Telling each other about personal histories that had never been uttered aloud. Confiding. Trusting. Sharing. Making themselves vulnerable and letting go of unbearable burdens.
They wrote skits. Cooked and cleaned. Went out into the woods. Completed a ropes course.
Along the way, Sarah will tell you, she confronted her fear of heights. She’d tried similar activities in the gym at school, safely held by harness and anchored by belaying partners. Yet she’d never made it past a certain vertical climb. She’d never overcome her own anxieties.
At RYLA, with her “family” of fellow juniors cheering her on, encouraging her, believing in her, she rocked the ropes course. She climbed to heights and balanced on narrow precipices she’d never before reached. And that vertical limit she achieved? It wasn’t just the measurement of several dozen feet up a tree or the slim span of a single rope. It symbolized many issues that she was carrying, and the important steps she took toward confronting and overcoming them.
She transformed from the inside out last year. So we don’t have images of her at the Hellenic Center. Instead we have pictures of Sarah up in the air, mid-height, on the ropes course.
Go, Sarah, go!
CHASING DREAMS of EVERY KIND
But let me be clear. Both events have their time and place.
This year, Sarah’s planning for senior prom. She’s got the dress. And the date (he invited her by spelling out the invitation in marinara sauce on a pizza). She’ll get fancy fingernails and toenails. Style her hair with her girlfriends. She’ll pick out some heels. Work out a safe ride. Make overnight plans for after the big formal dance out at Castle Hill. That’s part of her dream, too.
And you know what? Our younger daughter Jessie, who loved to dress up in heels and formal gowns and go on dancing-dinner dates with her daddy, would have hoped to attend her own prom someday. If she’d grown up to attend high school.
Plus I have lived alongside a few teens who didn’t attend proms, because they were on an oncology or transplant unit far from home, surviving in the hospital. Those teens? They hung out in pajamas with cap-covered bald head for fashion, tethered by translucent tubes to IV pumps on a rolling pole for a dance partner. Although these teens lived with great heart and hope, filled out college applications or made plans to dance, they didn’t all go home again to graduation or prom. Some made it back. For others, prom and graduation remainded … forever beyond reach.
So every dream has its place. It’s just fine to want the magic and the moment of prom.
There’s a time – in life – for a quick snapshot of a girl climbing ropes at RYLA with an adopted “family” of like-minded teens screaming her name as she dares to balance on the line. There’s also a night for fussy mom-and-dad photos of a cute pair (or cluster) of teens posed with their arms flung around each other – students who have set aside whatever secrets and problems come with their daily lives – to live inside this fragile dream, this fleeting instant, dressed in dark suit and shining gown for prom, grinning into the camera.
It’s just one moment in a whole lifetime. A moment of recognition. Of reaching for something different. Or trying on possibilities. A picture captured whether you’re child’s poised on a rope or balanced on heels, trembling at that self-imposed unnatural height, grinning into the camera.