As the school year winds down, many senior students of schools across the nation will not just be commencing another summer of holidays to provide a break during semesters. Many will be leaving their safe havens of senior public school and taking their first step into the world of adulthood. Attending fast paced, crowded colleges or universities, taking up apprenticeships or full-time employment. Many may even move from family homes in their pursuit of educational fulfillment or the ‘perfect’ job opportunity. Many young people are preparing to move on to new lives in the world, with new responsibilities, new environments, new peers and new aspirations.
One ritual that has become synonymous with coming of age has been the senior prom. Closely preceding the graduation ceremonies of many high schools, or following closely behind graduation events, the senior prom (also known as the senior formal or the spring formal) is an opportunity for youth to celebrate the entrance into the world of adulthood with a splash of color and formality. However, there is far more behind the social event than may be initially noticed.
Formal. What is formal? Formal means to present one’s self to others in a way which is ‘with form’, with shape, polite, inoffensive and dignified. We see the example of a formal letter, it uses proper grammar and sentence structure in order to be respectful, while simultaneously serving a purpose or getting an important message across.
In our society, what is formal? Very little. On average, clothing, language, behavior – all is very informal. Individuals who are formal (polite, inoffensive, organized) in their daily dealings with people ore often looked upon as square or boring. Yet we see that in certain situations, individuals play with the concept of formality not truly to implement respectfulness and order but because it becomes fashionable to do so. While behavior surrounding a prom may seem, on the surface, like a fun opportunity to behave formally it is actually a flowery version of Halloween.
On the occasion of the spring formal we see blossoming youth taking on the formalities of what is perceived as ‘adult’. Fine dress, (most who attend the senior prom rent expensive tuxedoes or purchase high quality suits or gowns for the occasion) elaborate beautification (spending hours in front of a mirror or at a hair salon in order to look just right) frivolous toys (Stretch limousines line the streets outside of dance halls on the night of the prom) all become synonymous with being an adult. In many ways, adults in society should examine their own behavior for wrongly displaying these types of objects as being ‘adult’ to younger people.
In our society we have a very misconstrued idea of what adulthood actually is. It has always been my understanding that adulthood and maturity are not based upon one’s ability to hold a cigarette in a certain way, tie a bow tie, tease one’s hair or hang out of a limousine sun roof . Adulthood comes with understanding of one’s place in the universe, it comes with the knowledge of how to interact with our fellow human beings, it comes with the ability to take responsibility for one’s own actions – whether good or bad.
It was 1990. I was seventeen years old and although the athletic types in my all-male Catholic school saw me as a bit of a runt – small, cocky, seemingly uninhibited, most of my peers and teachers were supportive friends who enjoyed my company and with whom I, in turn, felt very comfortable. I had become very active in my school and very visible because of my involvement in various school events, usually arts-related. It was my senior year. Young, agile, fashionable (by some standards at least), busy with the thoughts of what I would do with the rest of my life. Decisions that affect the rest of our lives can often become clouded when we are blinded by fear of what others will think of us – whether it be our parents, our friends or our teachers.
Within me was a need to understand the adult world into which I was about to embark. I felt foolish to think I was stepping into the adult world at such an age – in many parts of the world and throughout history, seventeen is within the realm of adulthood, as responsibility is established much earlier in life, following puberty at the age of 12 or 13. There was a great confusion in me to see my society putting such emphasis on acquiring wealth and prestige over acquiring a feeling of spiritual worth and understanding of true responsibility.
The concept of the senior prom frustrated me greatly. Many of my close friends were also disgusted with the idea of wasting parent’s money or money earned through weekend work, on a night of preening. To dress up and put one’s self on display in a sort of inner-school fashion show seemed degrading.
Across the street from our school was an all-girl Catholic school. Many classes were shared between the two schools and it was not uncommon for students from each school to cross the street and take up a seat as a minority in a class of the opposite gender. Religion classes were almost always co-ed in the senior grades, as well as many arts and sciences classes.
It upset me to see some students behaving superior to others simply because they had girlfriends or boyfriends and others did not. It upset me to see friends quarrelling over who was taking who to the senior prom. It upset me to see peers who normally behaved rudely in class or to their friends, making big plans to put on a cummerbund in a pseudo attempt to be ‘adult’. On one hand behaving romantic and polite, planning to buy a corsage for their date, and on the other hand also planning to smuggle alcohol into the event then rent a hotel room for an opportunity to dishonor their date.
I made a firm intention in my mind to boycott the senior prom for these and other reasons. Adulthood, I felt, was not to come with irresponsibility and excessive waste. It is not synonymous with loud music and dancing. Of course there are those who do attend their senior prom with very pure intentions and hopes to have a ferry tale evening, complete with non-alcoholic sparkling drinks and an opportunity to celebrate the closure of an era in high school with close friends. However, there are many other more meaningful ways to prepare one’s self for the adult world than just dressing up for a night and attending a gala party.
I recall hearing about the senior prom held at my school by peers who did attend. I saw some photographs and some of those pictures are locked forever in the pages of my school year-book. Images of people I once knew – huddled together in tuxedos, singing like drunken barroom buddies. The bow ties are crooked, the shirttails are out, the hair is ruffled. I pray that they eventually did find adulthood, during the many years that have passed, since those pictures were taken.
I was not a Muslim when I boycotted my senior prom; Allah brought Islam into my life several years later. I was simply a young man who was tired of being irresponsible. I was tired of witnessing irresponsibility. I was desperate for a feeling of self-worth and fulfillment that I knew could not come from a few hours of loud music, a dance with a beautiful girl and a smuggled bottle of hard liquor. I would never suggest that I demonstrated angelic behavior during my days of jahilliya. We all have baggage in our closets – may Allah forgive us, but I did recognize what steps would lead a person to contentment and made every effort to implement those steps.
After leaving high school I met several other non-Muslim individuals during my travels who had also boycotted their own senior proms. We would sit and laugh about how good it felt to buck the system and refrain from taking part in activities that are based in total frivolity and irresponsibility.
Think of how much more meaningful it would be to spend an evening at a retirement residence with an elderly person who has a million stories to tell but no one to listen. Think of how much more there is to learn about life from volunteering an evening in a hospital ward for children, brightening the face of a child with a story or a song, than simply drinking punch in a dark hall under a disco ball. Imagine the feeling of spending only one hour at a soup kitchen, meeting the many men and women who sleep each night on the street while others waste money on lavish cars and rental clothes.
Allah knows best.