o tonight, gotta leave that nine to five up on the shelf, and just enjoy yourself. • A line from Michael Jackson’s 1979 song “Off the Wall.”
As soon as I fit my leg through the trousers, I put on new skin. I looked over at my closet, where the pair of black shoes lay in anticipation. The tuxedo jacket hung eagerly, waiting for my shoulders to ease their way into it. My computer was blaring big band music sung by Frank Sinatra, and for once, the limited laptop sound quality didn’t matter. Because this was June 29th at 6:00 p.m.
Ten days earlier, I had taken my Grand Oral exam (a presentation that is crucial to obtaining the baccalaureate but only five minutes in length), effectively sealing my three years of high school. Earlier in the month, I had learned with jubilation that I had been admitted to a dual degree in history and English literature at the Sorbonne university in Paris.
And in under an hour, I would leave for my “bal de promo” – the French equivalent of the high school prom.
Checking myself in the mirror, I reflected on how difficult this prom had been to organize.
In fact, this prom nearly didn’t happen; almost every circumstance seemed to conspire against it. If I were writing a screenplay, I would call it “The Odyssey of the 2023 Prom.” The finished film would contain the same kind of chaos found in the Stanley Kubrick film that I based the title of this article on (“Dr. Strangelove, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb”).
Well before our final baccalaureate exams – philosophy and the “Grand Oral” – a high school prom was in the works, and all those interested had paid eight euros.
However, there were conditions to this prom’s organization, and the principal made them clear as the year’s end approached.
“The prom at school will happen,” his statement read, “on the proviso that no student create any disruption on the final day of classes, June 9th.” On this half-day, the students in Terminale – the ominous French name for the high school senior year – finished classes to study for a few days before the philosophy exam. The day is usually fraught with puddles from water-pistol fights and other shenanigans, something that the high school authorities had sought to avoid by curtailing the end-of-year festivities and moving them to the middle school grounds.
The plan seemed cautious. But as the poet Robert Burns wrote, even “the best-laid schemes of mice and men often go awry.”
At the end of the morning, all senior-year students returned to the high school to collect their things prior to leaving. Waiting in the schoolyard, I saw a student from Première (eleventh grade) exiting the main building.
“They messed up our classrooms,” he said flatly. “Some of your seniors.”
I went inside with a friend to inspect possible damage, wondering how terminally careless a handful of Terminales might have been. How much glass had been broken? How badly had they butchered these classrooms?
What I found was closer to baking than to butchering: three classrooms were caked — chairs, floors, desks, everything — in flour and water. I turned to my friend.
This didn’t bode well for the prom, which the vandals were not planning to attend anyway.
The prom was canceled a few days later. From everyone’s point of view — including the vandals themselves — it was an ineffective punishment, penalizing everyone except those directly involved.
So naturally, it didn’t take long for us Terminales to peacefully oppose the motion, once our brief revolutionary passion had been calmed. One of my friends formed a group titled “Non à l’annulation!” (“No to the Cancelation!”), which garnered scores of students in minutes.
But, much like other major political movements in history, different factions quickly formed among this group.
When it became clear that the high school authorities wouldn’t go back on their decision, ideas for the “counter-prom” evolved into, finally, a party in a nearby town with alcohol and no adult supervision, starting at 7:00 p.m. and ending — theoretically — at 1:00 a.m. Some students were uncomfortable with this outcome but, with exams approaching, we didn’t have the wherewithal to propose something different.
It took a week before a small group of Terminales in the theatre group, including yours truly, voiced their discomfort with the disastrous turn this “counter-prom” could take. In this way, we got the idea for a “counter-counter prom,” which would gather the small group along with those who preferred to stay away from the boozed-up and adult-less “counter-prom.”
But wait. There was yet another kink in the chain.
As messages on the Instagram group got catapulted to and fro, it became clear that the “counter-prom” was to be canceled. Too many teachers and parents shared their unease with the organization, and our “counter-counter prom” was made redundant, since a definitive “prom-that-would-have-been-like-the-one-that-was-canceled-except-not-at-school” was now being proposed, in the same location as the “counter-prom;” I congratulate you if you’ve stayed with me up to this point. No alcohol, teachers present, June 29th, 7:00 p.m. until 9:00 a.m., including sleeping over for the students that wished, plus cleaning up the next day.
This was the party I, along with over thirty other students, would attend tonight.
Now, having given enough of a treatment for this historical epic, let me jump back to the title, which does imply that my path towards the high school prom was initially filled with forced disinterest, worry, maybe even dread.
Months before the beginning of this narrative, I didn’t want to hear the first thing about a prom. I had pushed through these three years and wriggled out of them with flying colors, thanks to hard work and the support of a few teachers.
I nonetheless saw high school as little more than a three-part vaccine to finish with as quickly and as painlessly as possible. My reasons for not attending the prom were, according to me, justified: shyness around my peers, a feeling of never being “welcome” on account of my different interests and reserved personality, and the fact that my girlfriend — who would also be present — had broken up with me in a text message and was flaunting a new relationship in my face at school. I planned to finish high school by standing the way I always have done: apart.
Yet, a change arose, and I cannot say how it did — it may have been the prospect of wearing a tuxedo, or perhaps the thought of sharing laughs, or of seeing my history teacher mingle with students on the dance floor. Maybe it was time for me to remove the blinders I had diligently ploughed through high school with. Maybe — just maybe — this eighteen-year-old, more-French-than-American Catholic Jewish writer, who had socialized little outside of music lessons and book festivals, wanted to express a seldom-used word in his lexicon: belonging. Maybe it wasn’t too late to do it.
I would protect myself with my tuxedo, as if it were a coat of armor, and talk with whoever I chose — Lord knows, the world was larger than just my ex-girlfriend and her new boyfriend.
And walking away quietly when the prom started to wind down, maybe I would be happy with this reward, the kind of reward that doesn’t depend on finishing on top with glowing reports and outstanding results. The kind of reward that comes with playing dress-up, musical chairs, and eating candy.
This was the reward I hadn’t felt I needed…but that a small party in small-town Normandy had reminded me the necessity of.