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Prom is a complex part of American culture

Published: Tuesday, May 7, 2013 9:35 a.m. CDT

It’s something I’ll never forget. I was covering a high school girls soccer match one Saturday morning. The Lady Spartans had just won in overtime to clinch the regional title. After a few brief words from coach Dave Lichamer, many of the girls grabbed their backpacks and darted to their mothers, waiting to whisk them away to hair stylists and dress shops.

Prom was the same night.

As you can probably tell from this week’s newspaper, we’re in the middle of prom season. Like most things in life, prom – which is short for promenade – means different things to different people.

Photographer Mary Ellen Mark once said, “Prom is an American ritual. It’s a rite of passage, and it’s very much a part of this country.”

In “Prom and Prejudice,” Elizabeth Eulberg had a different take: “Nobody wants to give up a weekend-long excuse to dress up and attempt to outshine one another.”

Personally, I prefer what comedian Rita Rudner said: “It wasn’t that no one asked me to the prom, it was that no one would tell me where it was.”

According to PromWorks, the first mention of a prom was in the 1894 journal of an Amherst College student. The first proms at colleges were modeled after the debutante balls thrown by wealthy families for their children.

Proms eventually spread to high schools, starting with a tea and dance in a school’s cafeteria or gym. It wasn’t until the 1930s that they began to resemble the modern version, which gained extreme popularity immediately after World War II, as jobs and automobiles became more plentiful.

Today, of course, the prom can be about as extravagant as a person wants or can afford it to be: expensive gowns, limos, dinners, etc.

However one chooses to do it, prom is a very formal affair; lovely and memorable for some, maybe not so much for others. For me, it’s hard to think of proms in American culture without that famous and disgusting scene in “Carrie” popping to mind. But that’s just me.

This might not surprise anyone, but I didn’t go to prom myself. Since I didn’t have a Steady Betty at the time, it didn’t mean anything to me. Plus, if you’ve ever seen any of my feeble attempts at dancing, you wouldn’t blame me. Also, I was going through a little bit of a Bob Dylan rebellious period, so it didn’t seem the cool thing to do. (Ironic, since the legendary singer/songwriter went to his senior prom.)

Looking back, it would have been nice to go to the prom; still, I don’t regret that I didn’t. I wasn’t very close to most of my classmates, so I don’t have the sentimental attachment to my class that many others do. I’ve always thought prom meant more to girls than boys, sort of a prelude to their weddings, and even more to girls’ mothers, especially if they didn’t go to their own.

Regardless, I hope that every teenager who sincerely wants to go to prom this year gets the chance. I also hope they have a much better time than Sissy Spacek did.

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