The Prom Lesson

I hate Prom. I know: unpopular opinion with schools cancelling Proms this year.
But my hatred of Prom started way before the Corona virus took it away from the 2020 Seniors. Every year, for the last 20 years, I give the Prom lesson in my classes on the Thursday or Friday before Prom. Since I’m not in school this year, I’m going to write out The Prom Lesson. Here goes:


I don’t have an awesome Never Been Kissed or 10 Things I Hate About You story for why I hate Prom. I wasn’t dumped or never invited. I attended both my junior and senior Proms with the same girl. I was Prom royalty my senior year, even though I wasn’t elected King. I show my students a picture of me and my date at my senior prom to prove that I went and let them laugh.
My hatred from Prom stems from the denotation and connotation of the night. But more on that later.
To start, I look at Prom finances with my class. I let students create a list of money for Guys and Girls to attend Prom. They break out how much people spend on all prom necessities — dresses, tuxes, dinners, tickets, flowers, pictures, and whatever else they want to add. I try to quickly average the numbers, since some people spend more than others. In 20 years of this lesson, Girls always spend more money, usually by $100-$200. Lately, the averages have been Guys spending about $200 and Girls about $300. Also, since I don’t teach math, I like round numbers to work with, so those are our numbers for this lesson.
Next, I argue that not just one couple attends Prom. I teach in a 2300 student high school. Only juniors and seniors can attend Prom, but not everyone goes. I will have asked a Student Council member ahead of time how many people they are planning for. This year, let’s say they are planning for 600 students.
I’m a traditionalist and assume that half of the students going will be Guys and half will be Girls. This assumption has let me down lately, but for this lesson we are going with it. Three hundred guys spending $200 is $60,000. Three hundred girls spending $300 is $90,000. Adding those two numbers together gets us to $150,000 spent on Prom from individual families at our school.
However, that isn’t all the money our school community spends on Prom. I create another category and use Student Council connections to help with these numbers. Every year, Prom is at some cool location. No longer is the school gym or cafeteria good enough. It usually costs $5000 to rent an event center or concert hall for the dance.
Add in another $1000 for snacks, drinks, and decorations. Throw in another $1000 for a DJ. Now, don’t forget to pay the five Principals, 10 teachers, School Resource Officer, and extra police officers to make sure there are no shenanigans. Budget another $1000 for this, even though it’s probably more, but again, I like round numbers. We’ve generated another $8000 that comes from the school itself, to get us to $158,000 our community spends on our Prom.
Since I teach this lesson the day before Prom, I walk out in the hallway right now and tell students that is $158,000 in our hallways today that won’t be there on Monday.
Now, I explain to students that we have five large high schools in our district. Some schools may spend more or less on Prom, but we can use our number to estimate how much our District families will spend on Prom. Five schools at $158,000 per school will spend $790,000 on one night of Prom.
How about the 11 teams that are in our conference? They all have Proms, too. Our conference will spend almost two million dollars on Prom: $1, 738, 000. Don’t tell me there is no money in Education.
This all started with the students’ numbers about how much they were spending on dresses and dinners this weekend. Sure, this isn’t scientific, but it gets us to some rough estimates. It also lets me encourage students to get jobs that deal with weddings and proms because there is a lot of money to be made.
Here is where I change the lesson a little bit. I hopefully have the students’ interest at this point about money and have at least made them think about their own spending. But now it’s time to discuss the denotation and connotation of Prom.
The denotation of Prom is a three-hour dance, from 8:00–11:00 PM, that has a DJ, a chocolate fountain of some kind, and is supervised by multiple principals, teachers, and law enforcement officers.

The connotation of Prom is different. Several movies play on the connotation of Prom; American Pie and Blockers come to mind. I close my eyes and ask my students to raise hands if there is still a connotation to Prom that is vastly different from the denotation. I turn my back and when I turn around, students assure me that there were lots of hands in the air. I tell myself, and them, that as long as there is still a connotation to Prom night that is vastly different than the denotation, I still have to continue onto the next part of this lesson.
I now create a euphemism for students called “Sex, Drugs, and Rock and Roll.” I also loosely refer to this as “Friday and Saturday Night Decisions.” I preface this by saying I don’t care where you go to church on Sunday, if you go to church on Sunday, or what your family says or doesn’t say. I don’t care if you believe that drinking is the devil or that marijuana should be legalized. This isn’t about individual students and families.
This connotation of Prom pervades our culture. This connotation exists regardless of people’s individual opinions about “Sex, Drugs, and Rock and Roll.” I also am not accusing anybody in this virtual classroom or asking you to tell me your deepest, darkest secret, but let us at least attempt to deal in reality. At about this time, students are getting slightly uncomfortable because this class isn’t as much fun as it was and things are getting a little too real.
I tell students it is ridiculous that we spend almost $2 million on a dance that most students only attend for 20 minutes. The connotation of Prom — the “Sex, Drugs, and Rock and Roll” — are far more alluring than the denotation. At least be honest about what we are spending our money on. It has very little to do with DJs, chocolate fountains, and well-supervised students.
At this point, after I have sucked all the oxygen out of the room and got students to look inside themselves and be honest, I tell them my story about Mike Ransdale.
Mike Ransdale was killed in a drunk driving accident in the spring of my senior year of high school. His dad was a police officer in our town. I had known Mike my entire life. I also knew the driver who killed him my entire life. I had grown up with both of them since elementary school.
Both of them were drunk in a car together driving to the coast and both of them were my friends. Sometimes, Friday and Saturday Night decisions have big boy and big girl consequences.
Next, I explain to my students that I am shallow and vain. When I was in high school, I wanted a team State Championship ring more than anything. My junior year in football and my senior in baseball were my best chances. However, when your starting centerfielder kills your starting 1st baseman in a drunk driving wreck, all of a sudden baseball and rings aren’t very important anymore. In fact, you go from one of the hottest teams in the state to one who loses in the first round of the playoffs and, today, I don’t have a ring.
Obviously, this isn’t what’s important to the story. But to talk to 17-year-olds in a real way, you need to remember what you were like at 17 and be honest about it. If you can’t do that, you can’t reach young people. Their bullshit meter is extremely well-tuned and they can smell hypocrisy.
One kid died. One kid went to prison. In a horrible twist of irony, I saw several years later that Mike’s brother was also killed in a drunk driving wreck. I can’t imagine what that family has gone and goes through.
I tell this story every year to get to this conclusion.
Nothing tears apart a school like this. Nothing ruins a senior year more than somebody dying, especially in a preventable way. Nothing prepared me for that accident, because I have been talking about it every year for the last 22 years. In my years of teaching, I have had students die in the school I taught in. Every time, it is the worst thing people go through — the teachers, the students, and especially the parents. It destroys the school year.
All those years ago, most kids knew they were drinking. Most kids knew they shouldn’t have been driving. Most kids knew they should have said, “This is a bad idea.” Nobody did and we all should have.
I try to challenge my students that sometimes, this peer pressure thing — this Denotation of Prom, this “Sex, Drugs, and Rock and Roll,” this night that is what movies are written about — gets TOO BIG. The pressure of “what it is supposed to be like” gets TOO MUCH and makes us make decisions we normally wouldn’t. There is so much connotation to this ONE night, this never-to-happen-again night, this HUGE expectation — that sometimes people get talked into decisions that they don’t want to make and wouldn’t normally make.
Students are funny; they like rules and boundaries, even though they say they don’t. I tell my students I want to be an adult in your life, besides your parents, that says these words to you: You don’t have to do anything you don’t want to. Don’t let this night get bigger than it is. Just go be you, enjoy your night, but don’t make it bigger than it has to be. There are no “somethings” that have to happen on this night. It’s just a night, like lots of others ahead of you.
And it’s okay to say, no, this isn’t what I’m going to do tonight, and no, we shouldn’t drive to the coast right now. And it is really hard to be the only one to do it. It is really hard to be “the dork” or whatever the term is now. It’s easier to be “the dork” when you have someone else to be a dork with. There is strength in numbers and a lot of truth to my Grandpa’s saying “it is hard to soar with the eagles when you hang out with turkeys.” Find someone like you to be a dork with.
Sometimes, if you say something, others are thinking the same something and are looking for a way out. There is safety in numbers and maybe this is something worth talking about before Prom, rather than letting expectations lead you somewhere you don’t want to go.
I’m not idealistic to think this Prom lesson “works.” I am a Realist. I know exactly what happens. I tell my students so do your parents. They are happy for you and they like taking your pictures. However, they are terrified for you on Prom night because they all watched the same movies growing up. They also remember their own Proms and the expectations that went along with it and their own decision-making paradigms.
When I left my house in high school, my mom always said “make good choices.” That’s how I leave this lesson for my students: make good choices and if today’s lesson makes just one student think about the money they spend, their Friday and Saturday Night Decisions, and the connotation of Prom, maybe I have earned my money as a teacher today.
I am sorry about the interruption to life in general, academics, spring sports, and graduations for the Seniors of 2020.
But I stick to my unpopular opinion, every spring, for my junior and senior students — I hate Prom.

Written by: NathanWhite