In the early 1970s at my unconventional private school in Brooklyn, a prom was unthinkable—a bourgeois and sexist ritual of the traditionalist '50s that our parents might have enjoyed but we, long-haired and liberated, disdained. It wasn't just urban sophisticates like us who sneered. I double-checked with friends who went to a big suburban high school on Long Island—my idea then of the quintessential American teen educational experience—and they didn't go to any proms, either. That is right in line with what Amy Best reports in her slim social history, Prom Night: Youth, Schools, and Popular Culture: During the late 1960s and early '70s, she says, "many 'irreverent' youths brought them to a halt" all across the country. In other words, countless baby boomer parents of today's prom-age teenagers never experienced the iconic coming-of-age ritual. Perhaps, then, we should not be surprised by the current prom mess: The erstwhile school dance and celebration of an impending diploma has morphed into a bacchanal sponsored by staggering parental largesse (some estimates put the cost at $800 per couple). A generation of adults, as therapists would say, are working out prom issues.
At one Long Island high school, the drama has boiled over early this year. In September, the president and principal of Kellenberg Memorial High School, a Catholic school in Uniondale, sent a letter to a parent who complained after noticing the absence of a prom on the school calendar. The letter was circulated to all the parents and surfaced last week on the Chicago Tribune op-ed page. "You are correct," Father Philip K. Eichner and Brother Kenneth M. Hoagland peremptorily begin. "The school calendar does not indicate the date for a senior prom. KMHS is no longer sponsoring a senior prom. As your own letter suggests, if parents and/or seniors want a senior prom, they will have a prom, no matter what the administration says or does. In fact, that is precisely the reason why we are no longer sponsoring a senior prom—it is so much beyond our control that it is mere tokenism to put our name on it."
The memo is notable for its anti-parent animus—it boldly deploys a Dr. Phil-style rhetoric—but even more for its anti-materialist message. "It is not primarily the sex/booze/drugs that surround this event, as problematic as they might be," that inspired the prom's cancellation, Eichner and Hoagland explain. "It is rather the flaunting of affluence, assuming exaggerated expenses, a pursuit of vanity for vanity's sake—in a word, financial decadence." Surprisingly, KMHS parents and students haven't kicked up much of a fuss. Maybe that's because they recognize the diatribe has useful lessons for cowed parents eager to regain the moral high ground with their debauched adolescents. And perhaps those coddled kids might like to rebel for real rather than barf in limos on the way to beach houses supplied by parents for after-prom fun.
Once upon a time, back in the 1930s, the prom emerged as a rite of passage designed to signal the assumption of adult status and appurtenances—hence the tuxes and gowns and scripted displays of what Parents magazine in 1935 called "gracious manners and good taste." These days, the prom signals, if anything, a regression to an immature mean. It is an orgy of consumption that entails abandoning the pretense to policing sex/booze/drugs, sustained over four previous years by parents, kids, and school administrators. High school—at least in middle-class places—occasions no end of hand-wringing by boomer parents and educators about that trifecta of perils (which boomers themselves of course sought out as teens and survived). Given their own wild pasts, parents find themselves trapped in the pose of earnest worriers, shying away from the hypocritical role of scourges. And so they lay down the law by citing the medical (not the moral) dangers of drink, etc., and their kids roll their eyes and break the rules. Come prom time, however, the compact is out the window. Then—to cite Eichner and Hoagland—"fathers [sign] the contract for Captain Jim's booze-cruise out of Huntington for an after-prom adventure," while mothers make motel reservations. And kids eagerly buy into the whole business. They rush out to spend their parents' money on clothes hyped at events like Macy's 1999 "It's Not Your Mother's Prom" fashion show. On prom night itself, they overindulge in drink, drugs, and sex, a first only in the sense that heretofore they've done so with the thrill of illicitness. Now they're partaking with parental approval.
Surely even subscribers to Your Prom and Teen Prom (two magazines that market the event as a "pre-wedding") would sheepishly agree that things have gone too far. Every year, as Eichner and Hoagland note, schools devise new gimmicks in an effort to fend off the after-prom scene—a car raffle at 6 a.m., say, to keep the kids from ducking out to go crazy. But in vain. Amy Best calls for a "pedagogy of proms" and urges lots of discussion by students, teachers, "cultural workers," and school officials about the night's role in "the formation of student identities"—just one more way to waste senior year obsessing about the event. While their fierce letter surely came as a shock, Eichner and Hoagland cut right to the chase. They put parents in the foreground where they belong, and they fulminate against consumerist "vanity" in a way that just might resonate with boomers who were, after all, former prom scoffers themselves. Before they go overboard, making up for their own missed proms in the past, parents of today's prom-goers might stop and reflect that here is the rare occasion where they can lecture their kids with a clear conscience: Do as I did.
It takes Catholic moralists, not therapists, to put parents back in touch with their anti-materialist and nonconformist adolescent impulses, that old Puritan streak that ran through their otherwise hedonist youth. If they can't fight their teens' dissipation with fervor, they've got better ground to stand on in denouncing precocious conspicuous consumption. And if high-rolling parents can't pull it off, a screed from bold school administrators can give kids a defiant model to follow. Amy Best salutes youths for such subversive gestures as wearing Doc Martens with their tuxes or sticking radishes in their lapels ("using irony as a rhetorical tactic to disrupt, expose and resist the adult meaning systems through which the prom is defined"). But if kids are looking for a truly radical way to assert their power and signal that they've finally grown up, they can tell their parents to take their lavish prom-night clothing allowances, liquor-stocked limos, and condos, and go to hell.