“Look! There’s a rhythmic ceremonial ritual coming up.”
-Back to the Future
I never went to my high school prom. The party line on that is that my girlfriend and I just broke up unexpectedly a few weeks prior, which we did. The truth is I probably never would have gone anyway. I was a bit of an outsider and that just really wasn’t my social scene. I never was part of any cool inner clique. I never would be remembered as part of the in crowd, the cool kids, or the beautiful people. Rather happily, I was an outlier. On prom night itself I probably had a movie night at my house with my other dateless nerdy friends watching John Carpenter movies and drinking Mountain Dew until the wee hours.
I was the kid that kept to himself and excelled academically. High school was easy for me and I knew I was going straight to college after. I didn’t care in the slightest about fashion or fitting in, as evidenced by any photo of me in high school. I was reading H.P. Lovecraft and Clive Barker as soon as I finished my assigned classroom reading. I chose solitary activities like radio broadcasting and yearbook staff. So I was either in a room talking to myself over the microphone about music, or in a darkroom by myself developing black and white photos. I did attend lots of high school functions, but as an observer photographing the events and not participating in them. I watched everybody else have fun through a camera lens.
I spent my high school years discovering and delving into music. Playing vinyl records was, to me, attending church. Reading or deciphering song lyrics before the internet existed was like memorizing ancient holy tomes of scripture verses. Becoming an acolyte of the church of Led Zeppelin, Rush, and Judas Priest album by album until I owned their entire discographies brought me spiritual happiness and enlightenment. I also worshipped at the altar of Van Halen, Metallica, Pat Benatar, and early Pretenders. Amen and hallelujah, my big brothers and sisters of rock.
I also started volunteering as a disc jockey on my high school radio station, KRVM 91.9FM. I got to play music I deemed important over the radio for other people to listen to. Going on record-buying trips at The Record Garden in Eugene was such an honor. The radio station would give me a purchase order to buy records for the station and review them. I felt like I was the luckiest guy in the world to be entrusted with this duty.
I never played any sports in high school. None at all. Instead I started taking drum lessons when I was 16. Any hand-eye coordination or athletic prowess I had was only showcased when playing drums. I found playing drums to be a mathematical exercise in ambidextrous rhythm making. A workout for the body and brain requiring stamina, control, and precise calculation of patterns and timing. And yeah, I liked hitting things with sticks.
But back to prom. I had gone to a couple high school dances with my girlfriend before splitting up. I remember walking through the crowd with our arms around each other while Guns N’ Roses (of all things) was playing in the cafeteria. We hung out for a few songs and then left so we could go make out. Notoriously, we once got kicked out of an arcade for kissing and making a spectacle out of ourselves. That’s a badge of honor I wear proudly to this day.
Now, decades later, I find myself working security at a high school prom at the music venue where I work full time. Many groups rent out our venue when we don’t have a famous touring band playing there. So I’m familiar with staffing fundraisers, weddings, anniversaries, work parties, and even high school proms. The proms provide their own Police officer on premises, so our job becomes less security and more dance chaperone.
I couldn’t help it, but I was looking up in the rafters for a bucket of blood to be dropped on Carrie White. I would have been like the Amy Irving character trying to stop the slow-motion humiliation of Sissy Spacek. In my revisionist daydreaming of the movie, I also would have gotten to kick John Travolta’s ass. Luckily, there wasn’t even any crowning of the prom king and queen like in the Brian De Palma film. No popularity contest rating of the most popular echelon of high school representatives.
My high school prom (that I didn’t go to) was many years ago. Watching all these kids tonight pushed a lot of memories and feelings out to the surface. I haven’t gone to any high school reunions at all. I believe I found most of my cohorts and chosen family in college, not high school. I do retain a handful of good friends from back then, but I just didn’t bond as strongly with people until college. I barely stayed in contact with anyone from high school after graduation. I think I wanted to compartmentalize that period of my life and put it behind me. It wasn’t particularly a bad time, it was just….high school.
The kids tonight are having the time of their life. Or they want it to look that way. Everybody is taking selfies and uploading SnapChats of them dancing with their friends. There is so much pressure for this night to be all things to everyone. I am stricken with how grown up these kids look. Times have changed, indeed. The young men in my graduating class didn’t have full beards or tattoos. I don’t recall them being so tall or filled out either. And the young women here tonight wearing shiny dresses and makeup could pass for 26-year-old businesswomen. Absolutely nobody in my class was this physically mature or developed. Some of these young ladies look like glamorous sexed-out actresses or models. And there was so much booty shaking and twerking I thought I was at a strip club. I had to remind myself that everybody here is about 17 or 18 years old. Exactly how old to you have to be to get a boob job in Oregon anyway?
There was a mass exodus of attendees leaving the prom about an hour and a half in. They had other better things to do that likely involved drinking alcohol and having sex. Hotel parties and homes where the parents are away are calling them. Some coworkers and I would joke quietly, “Somebody’s getting pregnant tonight.” Although I remember being 17 and not knowing nearly as much as I thought I did. Sadly, the late hours of prom night are most likely to just bring fumblings in the dark, bad sex, and disappointment.
At one point the crowd got so animated that one guy was able to get up on top of everyone and crowd surf. This was definitely something that I had never seen before. Crowd surfing at a high school prom. I thought some of the young women would be angry with him for potentially ruining their expensive hairdo or damaging their corsage. Not so, everybody held him up as he fist-pumped along to the song. I was moving towards them to stop him when the DJ lowered the music and said, “No crowd surfing, no crowd surfing. Gotta keep it safe, everybody.” Thanks for doing my job for me, friend.
I was so interested in people watching and figuring out who was who. I could see the hyper-popular people that everyone wanted to take a photo with. I smiled when I saw the nerdy academic types clumping together. I loved the people who didn’t go along with the norm and wore exactly what they wanted to wear. They had their own quirky fashion style and didn’t care about fitting in. Nobody was being a wallflower either. Everybody was out on the floor in some way. I nodded with recognition when I saw the yearbook photographers doing the exact thing that I used to to. Documenting the event without participating in it. But with a valid excuse and something to keep their hands occupied. Their classmates are going to look at these prom photos for the rest of their lives.
I see so much fresh-faced optimism and innocence here tonight, along with some awkward naiveté. For most of us, the age of 18 is when we are at the peak of our beauty, health, and attractiveness. We haven’t been burdened with the grind of life yet. We haven’t been worn down by failures, tanked relationships, or lost jobs. With some exceptions, we usually haven’t been tied down with early pregnancies, major deaths in our families, or debilitating health issues of our own. We haven’t yet suffered crippling credit card debt, divorce and alimony, student loans we never pay off, a foreclosed home, or medical bills that bankrupt us. We aren’t jaded and cranky yet, and the future still seems like a wonderful dream. At 18 the world is still your oyster, and the world hasn’t broken you yet.
I couldn’t help but think about how for most of these kids, this is going to be one of the milestones of their lives. This night, no matter what happens, is the night that everybody remembers and talks about for years to come. They might even tell their kids about it. Your parents might display a framed photo of you and your prom date for a long time after you wish that they would take it down. Some of these people you will never see again. Some of these friends will later end their friendship with you, disappear, or die prematurely.
But during the dance, you assume that you will always be such good friends with these people. Not accounting for moving far away, getting married and having kids, traveling for your job, or just losing the shared history together. Or simply growing up and growing apart. For many this signifies the end of high school, and therefore the end of childhood. It’s the beginning of adulthood; moving out on your own, starting college, taking time off to travel, or joining the military. Whatever your calling is, wherever the winds of adulthood set you down. And there is no going back. It’s becoming a memory as we speak.
I realized that to these kids, I’m just some middle-aged guy sitting at an access point looking bored. And I guess I am. But I’m remembering where I was and who I was those decades ago. Nostalgia is a powerful drug. It is certainly a surreal experience to watch this prom decades after my own prom. It’s no wonder that my favorite music and movies all come from the 80s. I’m also realizing how bad most of the music that they love really is (it’s fucking terrible honestly.) Pop music has honestly devolved since I was in high school. I hated all of the songs they played until the very end. Music today just doesn’t energize and inspire me like it did when I was younger. Music was better and more innovative in my day. Lyrics were like poetry and actually meant something. Get offa my lawn, kids. I took satisfaction that for the final big songs, the DJ played classics from my era and the crowd went wild. The crown danced to those old classics from Journey, Bon Jovi, and David Bowie.
Mainly I’m watching them with envy and happiness. I’m happy that this night went off without any problems and that they all had so much fun. One of my favorite moments was when one of the nerdiest, goofiest kids there who had been dancing like a fool for most of the night started a conga line. All the other students joined in. The jocks, nerds, goths, miscreants, trust fund kids, and the beautiful elite. They all were part of this spontaneous moment of unity and brotherhood. They will never again in their lives all be joined together in equality and solidarity like that. Celebrating their graduation from high school and the beginning of their adult lives.
To be young and optimistic again. To be young enough where all of your accomplishments and greatest moments are still ahead of you, not behind you.
Back to the future, indeed. Hug each other longer than you think you need to. Tell your friends that you love them. Kiss them on the cheek. You will never be here again.
Freeze this moment a little bit longer
Make each sensation a little bit stronger
Experience slips away
Experience slips away
-RUSH, Time Stand Still