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Lisa Belkin Headshot

How Learning The Rules Of Prom Is Almost Like Learning About Real Life

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An American friend who lived in Moscow for a few years used to marvel at the mystery of the fur hat. Through most of the frigid Russian winter, Muscovites wore the warm, heavy, not terribly flattering things on their head. Then one day -- not necessarily a warmer day, definitely not the same date every year -- the hats were gone. All at once. Without warning.  

Was there a memo, she wondered? A secret signal? An unwritten rule? 

Raising a teenager is like being a Kremlinologist during the Cold War. (Or being my father for most of my life, constantly asking things like how the girls in my grade knew that one day ankle socks were in and the next day it was knee socks.) Every day brings mysteries as inexplicable as fur hats. There are rules. They know them. You don't. I relearn this fact periodically, and was schooled in it big time last night as the senior class gathered for the prom. 

There were rules. They were different than when I went to prom. They were even different than when my older son went three years earlier. The teens all knew them. Me, not so much. 

So, in homage to my friend who could have used a primer on the Russian hats (and to my dad), here's one on how to attend the prom at one suburban New York high school. At least these appear to have been the rules yesterday. They may have changed by today. 

1. You can learn a lot about a girl by the length of her dress. Only the seniors are allowed to wear long dresses. Younger students who are accompanying seniors may only wear short. UNLESS that younger date is really a DATE (i.e., they are dating), in which case a gown is permissible but not required. 

2. Very few prom couples are actually dating. Prom is not for romance, it's for gobs of friends. But you can't just go in a gob -- you have to pair off. And that means going through rituals that once had gauzy meaning -- buying corsages, posing for photos as couples, even opening doors for girls and taking their arm for support (because who could possibly walk in those towering heels...). I'm betting, though, that playing dress-up, and going through the pantomimes of courtship probably created a few real couples over the evening.

3. The world might end if two girls wear the same dress. Fortunately, Mark Zuckerberg (who, by the by, attended this very high school) forestalled the apocalypse by creating invitation-only places (ie specially created Facebook pages) for attendees to post photos of their gowns and "claim" them, in effect. Much time can be spent there discussing whether a junior wearing a short version of a gown in a different color is a violation of the rights of the senior who bought hers first. 

4. They look great. I guess I graduated in a bad era for formal wear (my date actually wore a powder-blue tuxedo), but not only are today's kids better dressed than we were, they are more polished and secure in their own skin. Is this because they are growing up too fast (i.e., faster than we did)? Or is it because we have raised them with more confidence? 

5. There is a lot of talk about alcohol. I find this both comforting and downright depressing. On the one hand, all the memos from the principal, and the flyers from the local police and the county's Division of Youth Services, and agreements the students and their parents have to sign (Alcohol Will Not Be Permitted. Any Student Who Leaves The Prom Premises Will Not Be Permitted To Return) show that no one has their head in the sand. But in the weeks leading up to the event, it sometimes felt like the layers of rules added each year as kids found ways around them was ALL we talked about. And that finding a way to drink became the endgame of the evening. 

6. They drink anyway. We'll get to that in a minute.

7. They don't drive. The school provides chartered buses, and that is the only permissible way to get from the high school to the local golf club where the actual event is held. You can't arrive in your own car, or even in your own hired limo. (See traveling in groups, #2 above.)

8. The prom itself -- the four hours locked at the golf club with the principal, some chaperoning teachers and a few youth officers -- is an afterthought. What really matters are the parts that happen before and after. Before includes a strategically scheduled "pre-pre-pre-Prom," which is a gathering of closest friends, on a lawn a moderate distance from the high school. Non-alcoholic refreshments are served, and parents spend an hour taking photos. Then there is the "pre-pre-Prom," a larger gathering at a home somewhat closer to the high school. Non-alcoholic refreshments are served and parents spend another hour taking photos. Finally, there is pre-prom, attended by everyone, and held on a side street near the high school which is closed to traffic by the local police. Well, that's usually where it is held. Yesterday showers threatened, and instead everyone gathered on the lawn in front of the school, the better to duck inside if the skies opened. Somehow all the teens knew that the venue had changed. They just KNEW. 

9. After the prom. Or AfterProm. After the school-sponsored bus brings them back to the high school, the real purpose of the evening begins. Formal wear is shed for the more comfortable clothes stored in car trunks in the school parking lot. I'm pretty sure other things are stored in those trunks as well (see #5 above). Then they board a party bus, which they have rented themselves. (When it comes to prom, students who have been unable to organize something as simple as a toothbrush holder all year somehow get together and juggle logistics that would daunt a professional party planner.) One by one they climb aboard, first handing the driver the permission form that the bus company requires that each parent sign, making clear that any student who drinks, or otherwise misbehaves, will be put out on the street. 

10. The bus arrives at the Manhattan dance club that does a good business in (alcohol-free) post-prom parties on weeknights. By dawn they are back on the bus, and not long afterward are heading up their front walks -- just as the school buses are making their usual rounds. They climb into bed, check in on Facebook with the gang they just left, then fall asleep with their computers still open on their beds.

At least that's what my son had done when I peeked at him this morning. He should be up in a few hours, in time to meet up with everyone to debrief.

He'll know the time and place.

I'll marvel at how on earth he knows.