By Chris Lane
By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
By Aaron Reiss
By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
"Java chip frappuccino."
I order the drinks, and we grab a seat by the window.
"So, uh, what do you do?" I ask.
She's a lacrosse player, No. 19. She works in an Italian restaurant but spends weekends at her church, where she takes care of toddlers. She's going to Texas A&M in the fall to study education but isn't totally sure it's what she wants to do. She's definitely going out for the lacrosse team, though. She drives a truck. An all-American girl. Not crazy.
"I think it'll be fun. Interesting, at least," she says.
I've passed her test, too, so we're set. Prom is a month away, at the end of April. She's not sure which group of kids she wants to go with and doesn't know where they're planning on eating or if we're taking a limo. But it's whatev. I've got my marching orders. I need a tux and a corsage.
Because it crosses so many business sectors, it's unclear how much money gets spent on proms each spring. Of course, there's the dress, the tux, tickets and dinner. Add hair, makeup and nails for her. Spring for a Hummer stretch limo. Don't forget the corsage and boutonniere from the florist. Want a hotel suite or a beach house? Throw that on there, too. (Click here to view our "Prom Economics.")
Web sites such as yourprom.com, prom-night.com and promspot.com offer up scads of stories (almost universally aimed at females) and make their money from hundreds of advertisers pitching all the prom staples. According to Promspot.com, the average couple spends between $1,000 and $1,200 on prom, with wide regional differences.
Kellenberg Memorial High School in New York made headlines last year when the principal canceled the prom -- not because of sex or drinking, but because of the massive displays of wealth. Principal Kenneth Hoagland was disgusted by the houses in the Hamptons and the parents who were all too happy to shell out thousands of dollars.
At the time, Hoagland sent a letter to parents and students saying, "It is not primarily the sex/booze/drugs that surround this event, as problematic as they might be; it is rather the flaunting of affluence, assuming exaggerated expenses, a pursuit of vanity for vanity's sake -- in a word, financial decadence." His letter became a rallying cry for conservatives and liberals alike. If there's one thing adults on both sides can agree on, it's that kids are out of control.
Prom was back at the Roman Catholic private school this year, but in a much-scaled-down version.
Prom itself, a shortened version of "promenade," got its start in the South during the '20s. Young men and women, under the watchful eyes of chaperones, would get together and parade around the center of town. The tradition quickly spread, becoming a final dance in the high school gymnasium in the '50s. By the '80s, prom had evolved into its modern, Pretty in Pink self: materialistic, hormonal and fueled by drugs and alcohol. This led to hand-wringing in the '90s. Schools fought back, tightening up on drinking and driving, promoting alcohol-free after-parties. Anyone who watched the show no doubt remembers the dramatic Beverly Hills 90210 in which Donna nearly didn't graduate because she had one drink before prom. (Thanks to a boycott, she got that degree!)
Which leads us to today. Yeah, prom can be bad, but it's also part of growing up, perhaps the most American of American rites. It's both anxiety-inducing and exciting for adults. Some parents turn a blind, knowing eye to post-prom activities, while others are more frank with their kids, insisting on condoms and that no one drives after drinking. Still others try to go the extra mile to ensure that nothing untoward happens, insisting on 1 a.m. curfews.
Kids aren't really paying attention to all the worrying, though. They hear it, but really they have more pressing matters on their minds, such as finding a pimp tuxedo.
I'm not sure if I can pull it off. The Marc Ecko tux hanging on the wall at Al's Formal on South Main is the definition of P-I-M-P. It's black with a long tie and a low-cut vest. The coat hangs down past the knees. P. Diddy probably owns three. But since I'm trying to blend in, I think better of it. No point in upstaging all the kids.
Back in March, I made the drive out to San Jacinto Mall for a prom fashion show, put on by the mall and hip-hop station PRTY 104.9. "If you think of our listeners," says TJ Alexander, the station's marketer, "that's kind of the demographic: high school prom. It's just a good fit."
Vendors had set up booths up and down the main concourse of the mall, hawking makeup, dresses, hair and even tanning. About a hundred people appeared to have turned out for the fashion show. The kids on stage weren't professional models by a long shot, but they were having fun. When one pale girl came out for a spin, radio DJ Dana Cortez quipped, "There's another Paradise Tanning candidate." The girl shot her a hurt look before heading back offstage.