The big story in my house this past week wasn’t Hurricane Wilma (we’re about 1,000 miles north of Palm Beach), or Judith Miller and Scooter Libby (to my knowledge there are no covert CIA operatives in our immediate family), or the White Sox and the Astros (we’re Mets fans–our season ends in July). Nope, the big story was a real shocker–our 11-year-old daughter is going to her first school dance.
This news–like most news in our house–took my husband completely by surprise. “Why on earth do 11-year olds have to have school dances?” My husband’s reaction can basically be summed up thusly: Where’s Brother Hoagland when you need him?
Brother Kenneth Hoagland is the Long Island principal who last week earned his place in the Culture Wars Hall of Fame by canceling his high school’s senior prom. It wasn’t the kids’ bacchanalian sex and drugs and rock’n’roll (do they even listen to rock’n’roll anymore?) that pushed Brother Hoagland over the edge. It was the parents “flaunting their affluence” by staking the spoiled brats to limos, provocative prom wardrobes, parent-sanctioned alcohol consumption, and rented mansions in the Hamptons for Teens Gone Wild after parties.
I attended an “exclusive” private girls’ school on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. But, compared to these big spenders, we were downright frugal.
We had kids who lived on Park Avenue and went off to beautiful country houses every weekend (heck, we even had Kennedys). Other kids at our school were on scholarship–their families struggled to get by. My family was somewhere in the middle–between the Kennedys and the struggling. But we kids never knew which was which, or who had what–there was no contest of ostentatious wealth. We were all just kids together.
On prom night, we’d borrow someone’s brother, pick up some discounted silver sandals, and dance ’til the band packed up.
We were barely out of the 1970s and our hair and prom dresses unfortunately reflected the end of disco and the beginning of punk. The boys we coerced into escorting us sported a variety of pastel-tinted, ruffled shirts. They were brothers, friends, and serial prom dates who showed up every year prompting our headmaster to remark, “You again?!” as they entered the ballroom. My prom date was an Elvis impersonator. That’s not an exaggeration or a euphemism–he was actually an Elvis impersonator. But that’s another story.
We danced to a bad band and then left around midnight to wile away the hours until morning (like most seniors, we felt we had to stay out all night.)
We were legally allowed at 18 to go to bars and nightclubs. We did–but not to excess (my mother would have killed me!). We didn’t abuse the privilege. We moved on to an all-night coffee shop, ate fries and talked about plans after graduation. Finally we found ourselves in front of the Metropolitan Museum of Art daring each other to wade in the fountains. Then it started to rain. We huddled miserably in the stone doorways of the museum until around 5 A.M. when we were happy to go over to Judy Kwek’s parents’ apartment. Her folks had nicely invited all prom survivors over for a breakfast of doughnuts and coffee.
Sadly, the 21st-century overindulgence to which Hoagland objects isn’t unique to his Long Island school. It’s everywhere in these kids’ lives–heck, it’s the basis of a new reality show about sweet-16 parties. The kids on “My Super Sweet 16,” aired on (surprise!) MTV, have incredible blowouts that cost more than a wedding. These teenagers are well off so I suppose their parents can do what they like–but the way the kids talk to their parents and what they expect from them is unbelievable. They go ballistic if their parents offer to buy them a used car as a birthday gift, not some jalopy but a certified, pre-owned, luxury car like a BMW or a Lexus.
If I had ever spoken that way to my mom at my sweet-16 party (if I’d had one), not only would I not have received a luxury car, (which I didn’t–I leased my first car, a seven-passenger minivan, all by myself 20 years later without my mommy), but I wouldn’t have seen 17. And, to this day, I am respectful and polite to my mother. After all, she has my prom photos.
So, in a few days, despite my husband’s disbelief, our daughter will go off to her first school dance where, we are assured by our priest at her parochial school, “no one will actually dance.” It will be, more accurately, her first school “mill around.” She’ll hang out with her friends in the gym and have some good healthy fun on the cheap. As it should be.
–Susan Konig, a journalist, is author of Why Animals Sleep So Close to the Road (And Other Lies I Tell My Children).