Each year, at just about this time, our school cafeteria – cavernous, poorly lit, filled with echoes, a teacher’s worst nightmare – was transformed, like Cinderella’s pumpkin, into a gleaming vehicle for celebration thanks to a dedicated crew of parents. The walls were covered in midnight blue plastic wrapping sprinkled with stars, while fairy lights winked from every post. Tables were set up in small groups, centerpieces beckoning, turning the space into a scene from a Parisian cafe – though the disco ball said 1970’s Brooklyn.
Okay, maybe I’m exaggerating just a little. I mean, you couldn’t look too hard, because clearly this was a school cafeteria that doubled as a meeting space and gym – and yes, there were basketball hoops up high, if you looked up. But why destroy the illusion? Anyway, the lights were dimmed and the stars did seem to shine for those few hours of celebration.
I only began going to these annual dances over the last 10 years on staff, though I’m not quite sure why I hadn’t before; I think I always saw this as an eighth grade event. But one year, I was eating dinner in town with parents and my husband to celebrate our anniversary, only 10 minutes away from school, and I realized that I would be just on time to take a peek.
What I saw was a magic feat, our little eighth graders transformed into some bizarro version of adults: a mix of short and long dresses for the girls with all heel heights (quickly removed for socks), hair braided and twisted and blown out, makeup carefully (and sometimes professionally) applied; and, for the boys, the Sopranos look, with lots of white ties or bow ties on top of dark shirts. Our school was pretty strict about keeping it middle school, thank heavens – no limousines or tuxes (and if you think that’s a given, you’d be wrong).
Still, they did it up as much as they could. Students – particularly the female persuasion – often were signed out early that day (as long as they came for the four hours to be considered a full day, or they weren’t allowed to attend the dance), and they off to get their hair and nails down and participate in the general excitement, and sure, that was absurd in so many ways. And yet, every year, from that first visit to my last, I was swept up in these transformations. (We, as staff, dressed up ourselves in black and white, as we supported our kids. I didn’t know that the first year, so I kind of hid behind others in my jeans.)
I actually volunteered to chaperone once, but I couldn’t really stay in that dark space with pulsating music and strobes for very long. What I came for every year was the entrance, on a red carpet of sorts: young women and men being dropped off by parents alone or in small groups, smiling tremulously or big, as we shouted their praises. These were the kids I’d been seeing in the halls on occasion since I’d taught them almost a year ago, and, in some cases, hadn’t seen all year. And now, here they were: the ones who drove me crazy, the sweet kids, the sour kids, the mean and the kind. I already didn’t know half their names (an Achilles heel of mine), and I truly didn’t recognize a few, but I usually hid it well.
As they floated by me, I thought about the years to come, and I hoped I’d given them something to hold onto.
We hugged, and took pictures together, and laughed, and celebrated a moment that was more than just a little okay.
Of course, there were kids who didn’t come to the dance, who couldn’t, whose years at school had been laced with too much sadness. And there were those who came anyway, maybe alone, trying to hang nearby a few nicer classmates who might acknowledge them, or just get lost in the crowd. My colleagues and I would have our eyes out for them, and – at the very least – give them a nod or smile, take a picture together, compliment them on how they looked. Supporting the outsiders was always our most important job, after all.
There will be no eighth grade dance this year, of course, like so many other rituals and reminders of students’ experiences. And that’s too bad. But that was part of what I taught them too, in and around all of those lessons in reading and writing and speaking and listening: that life is far from perfect.
They may not want to hear it right now, of course. And that’s okay too.