If you believe in the gospel according to American high school movies, you’ll know that prom night is the most important one of your life.
Forget marriage or giving birth – you can do those things more than once – you’re only ever going to get one party to celebrate leaving school for the final time.
My school prom took place 10 years ago. Thanks to an adolescence spent watching Pretty in Pink, Mean Girls and 10 Things I Hate About You on repeat, I believed that anything could happen that night.
Prom represented an alluring world that was so distant from my comprehensive school in Scotland – somehow, everything would click into place that night.
Unfortunately, this year’s school leavers won’t be able to take part in their own – and I truly feel sorry for them.
People often dismiss proms as expensive Americanisms, but I will forever be grateful to mine which, although far from the night I expected, turned out to have a far bigger impact on me than I could ever have imagined back in the spring of 2010.
I remember the lead-up being accompanied by a quiet mass hysteria. School corridors buzzed with rumours, and girls who wore converse high-tops and H&M hoodies became sudden experts in flowers, taffeta and curling tongs.
Finding the right dress was paramount. It was the physical manifestation of every teenage girl’s wardrobe dilemma in 2010 – looking ‘frumpy’ was bad, but so was looking ‘slutty’. ‘It has to be the best I’ve ever looked,’ I announced solemnly to my friends over lentil soup in the school cafeteria.
Eventually I found a black second-hand dress with an oversized bow and paired it with fuchsia high heels for a ‘pop of colour’, like the fashion magazines I hoarded had told me to.
The day came, and a coach deposited us at a three star hotel on the outskirts of Aberdeen in a cloud of hairspray. The function room was cold and I picked at congealed chicken terrine surrounded by the same friends I sat with every day, waiting for something to happen. But the great prom moment didn’t arrive.
Instead, we felt like fake adults, tripping along in high heels but unable to buy a drink at the bar.
‘To the end of school!’ we toasted wearily, clanking together wine glasses filled with water.
After dinner, when the tables were pushed to the sides and a traditional band set up for the ceilidh, nobody wanted to Strip the Willow. Teenage aversion to organised fun took hold, and the more our teachers tried to encourage us, the more we cowered.
My friends and I stood around in the toilets instead, chewing gum and taking pictures on our digital cameras until it was time to leave.
The tides turned thanks to a kind, popular girl who offered to host the afterparty. Every single kid was invited (including those who had never been asked to a party before), easily bribed older siblings provided the booze and we changed out of our stiff formal wear.
‘This is much better than actual prom’, I said to nobody in particular, back in my hoodie and waving around a mug of Archers Peach Schnapps.
I talked to kids I had never spoken to before. There was no pressure to suddenly become best friends – school was over now – but we settled into a collective understanding that the social barriers we had built were essentially meaningless.
The reserved cafeteria tables, hollow opinions and petty rivalries that had dictated our school days wouldn’t mean anything in the new, adult world we were about to enter, and I felt a feeling of relief.
Perched on a kitchen counter, I swung my legs and chatted to a sporty guy who I had always assumed hated me.
‘It’s mad that we all went to school together for six years, but were stuck in these friendship groups and never talked to each other’, he slurred. ‘It’s sad nobody made an effort…’
His sincerity stung me and I often find myself remembering that conversation, although we never spoke again.
When I see someone alone at an event, or quiet at a birthday dinner, I try to make an effort I didn’t make back then, even if it’s just a shy smile. Maybe we have more in common than I think we do.
Thanks to coronavirus, this year’s proms have joined the long list of cancelled events. There have been some attempts to make the best of the situation – Michelle Obama partnered with MTV to host a ‘Prom-athon’ of movies, while some kids are throwing virtual leavers’ balls.
But getting dressed up for a Zoom call in your bedroom is never going to be enough (sequins don’t shimmer in the same way), and watching the classic movies will just amplify the sadness.
Prom wasn’t life-changing in the way I hoped for. It wasn’t a single pivotal moment – instead it was adult life compressed into one night, starting with the giddiness of expectation, flowing through awkwardness and boredom towards fun, then ending with the bump of a hangover.
It’s the bookend of adolescence, and the chance for kids to realise that their time at school doesn’t have to define them in the future.
Whether their prom is everything they ever dreamed of, like in the movies, or a bit of a let-down, it doesn’t really matter – there are valuable lessons to be learned from both.
At my prom, I learned not to let my expectations gallop away from reality, and that it takes more than a great dress to make things change.
Prom also taught me that I’m not the only person that’s shy, it’s just that other people might hide it better. It’s worth taking a chance – because we are all more stuck inside our own heads than we realise.
So I hope Class of 2020 works together to make these rituals happen a little later, when it’s safe to.
After a painful year that has stripped away milestones, freedom and opportunities, they more than deserve a night fizzing with teenage excitement, before they leave those strange years behind.