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Prom: A User's Guide

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The school year is almost over. Every weekend is a graduation weekend. High school seniors don't remember what homework is. It's prom season.

Macy's has devoted an entire floor to shiny, awkwardly ruched, floor-length creations. Florists revel in the last minute corsage orders from teens who didn't realize that flowers were part of the prom date deal. And the hat store down the street from me -- in a desperate attempt to cope with a society that no longer clamors for over-sized headwear-- urges passersby to "come find your perfect prom hat!"

Theirs is a brilliant advertising technique. The words "perfect prom" are magical. A "perfect prom" is the holy grail of the high school experience. It's like dating the quarterback and wearing his letter jacket; it's like being elected student council president; it's like graduating with a full scholarship to a highly selective university, but bigger -- because there are pictures to prove that it happened. It doesn't matter if you failed biology or if you never left your house on a weekend; it doesn't matter if you were suspended for a year or if you ate lunch alone in the cafeteria every day. If you manage to pull together a perfect prom, you win at high school.

If this seems an exaggeration, you clearly grew up before Disney's Prom, Facebook and Photoshop. Or you're just a well-adjusted person.

But what makes a perfect prom? What is it exactly that makes you one of the select few; one of those who can look back at high school without a grimace? Your parents will tell you it's about having fun. Your teachers will tell you it's about the milestone. Your friends will tell you it's about getting trashed. They're all lying. After-prom is about having fun. Graduation is about the milestone. A lot of things are about getting trashed. Prom is about the pictures.

Fun is fleeting; pictures are permanent. Milestones are personal; pictures (on Facebook) are public. Alcohol is a depressant; pictures, when edited, boost self-esteem.

What makes a perfect prom picture? What -- when set as your profile picture, or saved for eternity in a special album cleverly labeled "Prom 2011" or "Pre-Prom" or "Peace Out High School" -- will make you a legend among the underclassmen and popular in college? The answer is simple.

First, there's the companion. It's fine to have a glamorous solo shot, but that can't be all. Contrary to popular belief, this doesn't mean you need a date. It just means that you have to be creative with your poses. Do some date-hopping. Snap a picture with an attractive chaperone. Bring a cardboard cut-out along. The choice is yours.

Second, there's the outfit: You can have the most attractive date in the world. You can make the cutest couple in the world, but if you look frumpy or overdone (or even excessively underdone), it won't be worth anything. People will just think you hired a mail-order escort.

Third, there's the pose. It's far too easy to look awkward in a prom picture. No one is at her best as she leans against a banister, craning around the ten girls lined up in front of her. No one looks cool and casual with his hands on his date's hips, struggling to pretend he's at ease in black tie. It just isn't possible. But you have to take pictures. If you don't, what proof is there that the evening happened at all? The trick is to practice. Practice the poses in front of the mirror. Practice the poses the week before with your date. Practice the poses every morning before school. And remember that, no matter what, Photoshop is there for you.

But those are just the classic prom pictures. There's more to a perfect prom album than that- just like there's more to prom than pre-prom.

There's after-prom.

You're not going to tell your future college classmates stories about the conversations you had at pre-prom or the music you danced to at prom. You're going to tell them about what happened at after-prom. Or you're going to make up stories about what happened at after-prom. Either one works.

The first half of your album can be posed, put-together pictures with your date and corsage. The next 132 can't. The less put-together and the sloppier the better. Alcohol is optional -- it might not be worth the repercussions when your future college uncovers the pictures. Visible signs of a party are a must.

But what to do when not all of the ingredients are there? How can you face the underclassmen who plan to outdo you? How do you face your future roommate who pulled off the perfect prom?

It's easy. You can Google prom pictures and pretend they're yours. You can stage your own fake prom with a friend, a background, and some life-size Playmobil characters.

Or, even better, you can keep part of your life personal -- not post any pictures at all, maybe try to have some fun instead.