“Though I don't buy into lame clichés, an experience is made memorable by the people with which it is shared, not by the luxuries purchased for that experience.”
— Collin Labak, a graduating student at Hinsdale South High School in Darien, Ill., quoted in the May 6, 2011 Darien Patch
Our daughter’s prom was last weekend, and it was inspiring to see so many shining faces and fancy dresses, dapper suits and natty ties.
And it was a pleasure to see her gliding radiantly through the crowd in her elegant blue dress, mingling and laughing with her wonderfully warm and well-spoken circle of friends.
For high school graduates, it’s a time to celebrate achievements and friendships; to experience the bittersweet feelings of ending one era and the nervous excitement of beginning another.
For parents, there is a sense of undeniable pride that your child has blossomed into a responsible young adult, bursting with promise, with their own sense of identity, style and ambition.
Every parent wants the best for their child, and prom is no different. No one wants their son or daughter to feel diminished among their peers, and so people spend serious cash on the many accoutrements. Manicure. Tux rental. Corsage. Pedicure. Tanning. Limo. New shoes. Salon services. Dress. Jewelry. Private receptions. Hotel rooms. Dinner tickets. Safe grad tickets. Group breakfasts. Group lunches. Group dinners. Taxi fares. Presents. Portraits. Party buses.
Talking to friends and colleagues who also recently attended high school graduations, a common question emerges: what if you can’t afford to outfit your child in the style to which they aspire?
Has prom gone too far?
I’ve heard plenty of stories in the past week from parents recalling the affordable simplicity of their own graduations: homemade decorations in the high school, a few brief speeches, a march of graduates, family pictures under a fairy-lit archway, parents sent home, a dance in the gym.
That’s pretty much how mine went, too, minus the march. At least, I don’t think there was a march.
This may come as a shock to kids in the graduating class of 2011, but I don’t even remember that much about prom. Even special memories can fade with time. I do recall a bad perm, a navy-blue dress with an appliquéd butterfly, my red velvet bedspread used as the backdrop for the photos, which were taken by our French teacher.
Now, I’m not saying high school graduation shouldn’t be celebrated — far from it. Our daughter’s prom had a Hollywood theme and it went off without a hitch, thanks to the hard work of parents and teachers and the students themselves — all of whom clearly see the end of secondary education as a legitimate milestone worth honouring.
They deserve festivities and congratulations.
But I can’t help thinking of families who simply cannot afford even the basic trappings of prom. Let’s face it, $70 or $80 a pop for one dinner is simply beyond some people’s reach.
Should parents put themselves in debt to send their teen to prom? Should teens stay home in shame because they can’t afford to dress for a graduation dance the way their more affluent friends can? Should parents skip the ceremony because they can’t afford the cost of admission?
There are schools all over North America grappling with the problem of prom. Some create clothing banks, with donated dresses and suits and shoes where needy students and their parents can borrow prom clothes.
Other schools set aside so many “scholarship” dinner tickets for students whose parents can’t afford to spring for a fancy meal at a hotel. Some towns send out squads of hairdressers-in-training to provide styling services to grads who can’t afford to shell out big bucks for an up-do.
These are all well-intentioned ideas.
Here’s another one: instead of coming up with creative ways to help less-well-off kids fit with the program, why not tone down the program to be more inclusive and affordable?
Being a teenager is tough enough, let alone when you’re being judged by the cost of your dress and the brand name of your shoes. Perhaps prom needs to return to simpler, less expensive times so some students don’t feel stigmatized.
Prom is supposed to be about and for the graduates, but that’s not how it goes if the grad can’t afford to attend his or her own party.
There will always be students who are better off than others; that is an inescapable fact. And there’s nothing to stop families who can afford it from having lavish celebrations for their grad on their own time and their own dime.
But we don’t have to emphasize students’ financial disparities by pricing prom beyond the grasp of some of the very people it’s supposed to celebrate.
After all, one high school diploma is as worthy as another, whether the person who earned it shops at Goodwill or The Gap.
Pam Frampton is The Telegram’s story editor. She can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.