The only high school dance I remember is the one I never attended.
It was May of 1972 and a buddy and I decided to forgo our senior prom, with its queasy combination of sweaty tuxedos and rubber chicken dinner. Instead, we’d really impress our girlfriends by taking them out for dinner at the famed Joe Tecce’s Ristorante and Caffe in Boston’s North End, where the staff and many diners spoke Italian and the wine – bottled in large, greenish Coke bottles because Joe lacked a liquor license – flowed freely.
My most vivid memory? The Massachusetts drinking age having just dropped to 18, they actually served us a bottle of wine – no questions asked. We didn’t even finish it, but its presence on the table made us feel so … sophisticated!
That enchanted evening came rushing back last week as I read about the ongoing brouhaha in Kennebunk, where the annual homecoming dance will take place Sunday evening not at the high school, but at a barn in nearby Lyman.
Mind you, it’s not Kennebunk High School’s official homecoming dance, which was canceled due to concerns about the current COVID-19 surge. Rather, this gathering is the work of parents who have decided that pandemic or no pandemic, if their kids want a dance, they’re darned well going to get a dance.
Parts of that I get. Other parts, not so much.
No one can deny that the pandemic has been hard on adolescents. At an age when social interaction seems to trump all other needs, they thrive on being together in groups large and small, on building their own identity in large part from the cues they get from their peers. The less of that they get, the harder their transition to adulthood becomes.
But here’s where the dance organizers lose me. By not having the homecoming dance this fall, they argue, their teenage children will be forever diminished, robbed of memories that can never be replaced.
As one sophomore girl put it in a petition asking school officials to allow the dance, “We are building our memories to look back on for a lifetime.”
Again, I understand the sentiment. It’s the reality with which I quibble.
My all-male high school class will have its 50th reunion – or so I hope – next year. Once we get past the trying-to-remember-who-you-are part, I guarantee you no one will say, “Remember that dance when …?”
Which is a good thing. Because I don’t.
Sure, I vaguely recall the ritual: Meet cute girl. Dance with cute girl. Pray that cute girl might see fit to make out later in the parking lot.
But actual memories of actual dances? Not a one.
Here’s what I do remember:
I remember a handful of close friendships that continue to this day. One best friend forever, in fact, recently moved to Maine. We bought a circa-1820 barn across the street from my house last fall and have been hard at work ever since restoring it. We delight in telling people that we first met on the school bus the opening day of freshman year, 53 years ago this month.
I also remember one day, a short time later, when we had a fire drill and, while standing on the school’s front lawn, I quietly asked another newfound friend if he understood what we’d just heard in geometry class. He muttered “no” and promptly got detention for talking during a fire drill. My bad.
And I’ll never forget the time I typed up a fake permission letter so my friends and I could head down to Cape Cod for the weekend while our parents thought we were at a religious retreat. Someone snapped my picture as I sat alone in the typing classroom and the black-and-white photo – looking very much like a “wanted” poster – ended up in our senior yearbook.
My point, aside from finally confessing to a half-century-old fraud, is that none of my high school memories spring from dances or other formal events. Heck, I can’t even remember much about our graduation – except for the fact that my fire-drill buddy almost didn’t graduate because he showed up in jeans.
Rather, those “lifetime” memories, as the Kennebunk sophomore so aptly described them, are about individual experiences with individual people. They’re about building and nurturing relationships, not gathering en masse under a single roof to get close – sometimes very close – to hundreds of other schoolmates.
Is any of this fair? Of course it isn’t. From an adolescent perspective, COVID-19 is the party crasher of the (still young) century. And enduring the surging delta variant is like getting grounded indefinitely when you didn’t do anything wrong.
But for those kids who feel they and they alone are being asked to make unprecedented sacrifices simply to stay safe and healthy, I would respectfully submit that they’re wrong.
I would also suggest, if they haven’t already, that they read “The Diary of a Young Girl” by Anne Frank, who learned a thing or two about perseverance while hiding out from the Nazis with her Jewish family in the Netherlands during the height of the Holocaust.
A year before she died at age 16 inside Hitler’s Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, Frank wrote, “As long as this exists, this sunshine and this cloudless sky, and as long as I can enjoy it, how can I be sad?”
Words worth remembering, no?
As for the Kennebunk-area parents who organized Sunday evening’s soiree, I can’t help but wonder whether this act of rebellion is about planting their children’s lifelong memories or somehow resurrecting their own?
And if, as the parents complain, school authorities have no business urging kids to stay away, why are the dance organizers requiring each kid to sign a waiver of liability before setting foot inside the barn? My guess is that in addition to being parents, one or two of them are also lawyers.
Will the unofficial homecoming dance – which, by the way, was to be preceded on Saturday by a school-sanctioned outdoor football game and outdoor parade – be worth all the fuss? Will it truly stay forever burned on these youngsters’ brains?
Time will tell. Try as I might more than 50 years later, I can’t conjure up a single moment of a single dance I attended over all my four years in high school.
But I still remember, vividly, that double date at Joe Tecce’s.