Front Porch | Prom & circumstance
• This column was first published on June 29, 2009.
One of the blessings of the severe economic downturn may be the moderation of some of the worst excesses of the annual prom season, which was yearly becoming gaudier. Perhaps this is a good moment for the country to reconsider what the prom has become and what gave rise to its excessive pomp and circumstance.
High school leavers should enjoy this rite of passage, celebrating the completion of years of schooling and adolescent discovery. But, for most school proms, the line between celebration and materialistic excess was crossed many prom nights ago.
Rites of passage, with the guidance of the adult community, are meant to cultivate within our youth some of the values and responsibilities of emerging adulthood.
This is why the prom and related events are planned by students, with prom night akin to a quasi-adult stepping-out, with fancy dress and some of the usual parental restrictions on nights-out relaxed, but not abandoned.
Proms also reflect prevailing social attitudes and mores. Most of us have seen stories chronicling racially segregated proms at high schools in the United States and attempts to jettison these lingering vestiges of Jim Crow decades after the legal structures supporting segregation were dismantled.
Proms here at home have tracked and mirrored our social and economic mobility, including how our values are shaping and have been shaped by the twin fortunes of success and prosperity.
In the 1970s, an expanding upwardly mobile middle class who could now afford to give their children a private high school education they themselves did not enjoy, produced a new generation, who along with their new status adopted a variety of status symbols, including importing prom night from the U.S.
Eventually, with the spread of access to education and professional and economic opportunities for most Bahamians, the benefits and trappings of prosperity also spread, with the number of proms increasing, including among public schools.
The evolution of the prom from a celebratory rite of passage to a carnival of excess was captured in a series of telling events, including the decision by various schools to withdraw their official support from a prom experience that was getting out of hand, with regards its original purpose and costs – financially and morally.
This is not to gainsay the decisions of these schools. But one of the unintended consequences was the unleashing of a “Lord of the Flies” effect, granting greater oversight of this event to adolescent impulses, those of the students and, far too often, their parents.
Many adults, by commission and omission, cooperated in allowing the prom to become a rite of passage often exemplifying the worse rather than demonstrating the best of who we are and who we can be.
Readers will recall that “Lord of the Flies”, a novel by William Golding, chronicles the misadventures of a group of affluent school boys, who, after becoming shipwrecked on a deserted island, attempt to govern themselves with disastrous consequences.
So today, most of today’s proms do transmit life lessons, unfortunately the wrong ones. Healthy competition is one thing, especially in athletics and academics. But competing who can indulge in the most excess on prom night is not the kind of competition we should encourage.
In years past, luxury cars, police escorts and uncontrollable spending on clothing and related expenses were the hallmarks of prom season, a thousand dollars per student for prom night typical, with some students spending even more in a bid to compete for the prize of “the most spent”.
Some parents cannot resist the urge to go overboard, spending more in one splash than they may have spent providing their children with extra tutoring, books or other educational tools and experiences.
While prom should be memorable, it should not be remembered for excess and poor values which teach our children life lessons bolstering a crude materialism, crowding out more positive values like self-restraint, saving and responsibility.
For students about to enter college, some of those funds may be used to pay for books for the first semester. For those who are ending their formal schooling after high school graduation, perhaps some of those prom funds can be earmarked for a savings account.
Further, students planning the prom may consider adding a yearly event to their prom-related activities, namely a service project which will benefit the wider community. In this way, prom will be remembered as a time for both personal enjoyment and community service, a combination really worth celebrating.
Thankfully, many parents have shown restraint regarding prom spending and more Bahamians may be realizing that a reordering of our priorities is in order. Prom and the circumstances which gave rise to its excesses should remind us that the good life need not be gaudy to be good.