First Formal

Whenever I try to write about high school parties that involve the schools, the schools freak out and don't let me anywhere near the campus or party site. When I tried to write about a dance at Madison High School, the vice principal almost had me arrested. Since I had written about the Point Loma High School band, I figured they wouldn't mind me crashing their prom. Of course, there were hoops I had to jump through. I played phone tag with the principal, the vice principal, and a few other staff members. It took weeks to convince them to let me in. I promised them I'd stay away from topics regarding sex, drinking, or after-parties the students might have planned. The school agreed.

It was nice to go to a prom without having to rent a tux or worrying about the zit I got on my forehead the day before.

The Point Loma High School prom was held at Paradise Point. When did proms go from being at the high school gym to being at resorts? I'm guessing the mid-'70s. Everyone I talked to over 50 years old had their prom at their school gym, except one lady who told me, "The only reason we had one at a hotel ballroom was because our school was so small, we didn't even have a gym."

I arrived early but the parking lot was already full. I found out from a security guard that La Costa and Serra High Schools were also having their proms here this night (in different ballrooms). I saw two guys walking up who were lost. One said, "We just walked into the other school's prom. It was so embarrassing." I said to them, "It's not going to be as embarrassing as you guys walking into your prom without dates." They laughed and told me their girlfriends were in the car putting on their makeup. I'm not sure why the guys didn't wait for them.

At 8:15 there was a line of about 30 kids waiting to get into the ballroom. I remembered at my prom that we all thought it wouldn't be cool to show up too early. But worrying about being cool can get you into trouble. So many of my friends got limos that I felt weird driving my date in my old Mustang. I borrowed my parents' brand-new T-bird and promptly broke the headlight when I hit a pillar in the parking garage at Anthony's Restaurant in La Jolla.

I talked to a couple in line, Bernadette Ramirez and Joey Davidson. They told me they weren't a couple, just friends. I asked them how much it cost them to come to this event. They said $120 for the limo, $150 for the tux (he also rented a top hat), and $100 for the hotel. I knew a lot of kids had parties at hotels afterwards, but didn't ask any questions regarding that. I asked where they had dinner. "We saved money on that. We ate at a friend's house."

I saw some interracial couples. Back in the '80s, my high school (Mira Mesa) had all different races. We had lots of Filipino and Vietnamese, but it seemed like everyone dated someone of their own race. The few times people did date outside their race, they told stories about how their parents didn't like the idea.

As I walked in, I saw why the line was taking so long. The staff at the school was having the kids empty their pockets. One kid looked angry as he held his wallet, comb, and car keys in his hand. Better safe than sorry. We seem to hear about school shootings at least once a year now.

Since the students were being frisked and nobody was inside yet, I decided to talk to the DJ. He was spinning records for an empty dance floor.

His name was Peyton Vincent, and he worked for La Jolla DJs. I asked him how he decides on the music he'll play. He replied, "Sometimes it depends on the racial demographics. It can be different at different schools. The North County schools are strict and like very clean music played. One school wanted more disco, others like a lot of hip-hop. I was surprised with Coronado. They liked the '80s songs."

Vincent told me that he had radio edits of rap songs minus the nasty lyrics.

It didn't occur to me at the time to ask him if there are any proms that still hire full bands.

After talking to him and grabbing a Coke, I was surprised the ballroom was still empty. Then I noticed the line went from getting inside to lining up for pictures. When I went to that line, I asked why they didn't want to dance a little or kick back at a table before jumping back into another line. One guy said, "My girlfriend is making me. The pictures are the most important thing to her." She smiled and said, "With the money I spent on this dress, I'm getting photos taken in it. And besides, if we start dancing, we'll get sweaty and our hair will be a mess."

Another couple I talked to was Paul and Janee. She was a senior and he was in college. I asked how much they spent on their outfits. She said, "I saved some money, since I had this dress already. We ate at Old Venice, and probably spent a total of $300 to $400 on everything. We didn't rent a limo. We got an old GM. A 1950s model."

I saw a few couples standing out on the patio overlooking the water. One couple was smiling and taking in the view. I heard them talking about another couple who they were waiting for. One couple looked shy and weren't talking to each other. They didn't seem very social.

One couple walking by were gossiping about her last boyfriend. It was nothing that bad, but overhearing them brought back all those high school memories. Things that happened in 5th period that humiliated you and had you running home and telling your parents that you'd never go back to school again -- things we typically don't remember as adults. I thought of a classmate I had in 8th grade who killed himself. You wonder what could be so bad, and you wish that kids would realize that things do get better.

Paradise Point had tables set up with a wide variety of soft drinks and fruit punches. They also had a lot of fruit, appetizers, and a great selection of desserts. I heard one girl say to her date, "You could've saved money on our dinner. There's so much food here that we could've eaten."

I saw an African-American kid wearing a white Padres cap that matched his tux. He reminded me of an African-American athlete from my school who showed up at the prom in a tux with tails, a top hat, and cane. He thought he was cool, but we spent the entire time making fun of him and singing "Puttin' on the Ritz" every time he walked by.

Watching the groups of people, I saw a few couples kissing and getting affectionate. But most groups would greet each other with hugs and handshakes, like long-lost friends who haven't seen each other in years. A few guys tried to act cool with high fives, slapping hands, and doing weird handshakes.

I asked several couples if they were nervous meeting their dates' parents. All of them said they had met the parents on previous occasions. Some parents gave the kids curfews; other parents agreed that they could go to the hotel parties, which usually involved 20 or more students who all chipped in for the room. One girl said, "My mom said I can stay out until 4:00 a.m., but she said my cell phone better be on, the battery better be charged, and that I better answer any time she may decide to call."

I saw a guy walking around in a weird plaid suit. His name was Nicholas and his date was Megan. I asked Nicholas about his suit. "This is my older brother's. It was in his closet, and it matched my date's [outfit]. I like the multicolors. My brother has gone to so many dances and he has a lot of different outfits."

She's a senior and he's a junior, and they are just friends. I asked them where they had dinner. "We ate at George's on Fifth," said Megan. "My friend's dad is a chef there, so we got a good deal." She told me she bought her dress but it wasn't that expensive. She also complained that she forgot her ID, which was required to get in. (She somehow made it inside.)

I heard one girl talking about a couple named Stephanie and Alex who were eating at the Indigo Grill in Little Italy and had a $400 dinner bill (they had seven other friends with them). A couple at the bar saw the kids at the table and paid their tab. The couple left before they could even be thanked.

The DJ played Michael Jackson's "Beat It," and the lights were completely dimmed. I should've asked him if Jackson was appropriate to play.

When the next song was played I heard a guy tell his date, "We have to dance now. That's my song." Another girl sitting nearby said, "That's the first time a guy has had to suggest they go out on the dance floor."

When a Kelly Clarkson song was played, more people got on the dance floor. It snowballed after that.

A girl put one of the napkins in her purse. "A Sunset to Remember, Prom 2005" was printed on it with an image of a couple kissing between palm trees. Her and her friends were also taking photos. Girls seem to be more into photos and keepsakes than guys are. Guys buy flowers and a card the afternoon of Valentine's Day. And the cards we receive usually end up in the trash a few days later. I'm willing to bet women spend hours searching for just the right card. And they probably save all the cards we give them (at least until the breakup, and sometimes, even after).

I heard one girl say, "Oh my God! I have to sit down. My feet are just killing me." One girl who told me earlier that she spent $280 on her shoes already had them off. "They were getting uncomfortable." I told her if I spent $280 on shoes, I'd sleep in them, and that they should have magical things happen when I click them together. She laughed and said, "It's not a waste of money. I'll wear them again." I wondered where, since she'd taken them off so early in the night.

This is probably the first time many of these kids have been to a formal, but they all carried themselves well. Nobody was yelling or cussing. People were shaking hands like they were going into business together. There have been studies that show kids behave better when they are dressed up.

I talked to another couple named Victor Kareh and Ashley Roche. She's a senior and he's a cadet at West Point. Whenever he answered my questions it was "No, sir. Yes, sir."

They had been dating for 20 months and he flew out here just for this event. He was flying back to West Point as soon as the prom was over. Ashley said, "We met at OLP. That's an all-girls Catholic school." She told me they had dinner at home.

One girl overheard me asking questions about the expenses, and she told me she spent almost a thousand dollars. I asked why so much. "This stuff adds up. I had to get my hair done. I had a manicure and a pedicure. I needed to buy this dress. It's good my boyfriend paid for dinner."

The least amount anyone I talked to spent on clothing was a guy who told me his tuxedo was only $70. And he looked better than a few of the guys who had the long tails, pinstripes, and weird colors.

There was an employee replacing drinks. His name was Marcos. I asked him if it was hard working a prom. "I've been an employee here for 37 years. We do 20 proms a year. It's not hard. The kids are great. And we see a lot of the same schools each year. Weddings are a lot harder because we have to pour champagne and wine. Here we just have cans of soda we set out."

I noticed the music was getting louder, and a few girls escaped outside so they could hear who they were talking to on their cell phones. I glanced over at one awkward couple who weren't talking. It looked like they didn't know each other well, not like they were having a fight. I suppose the loud music was a convenient excuse not to chit-chat.

I went outside and eavesdropped on the cell-phone conversations. One girl said, "Why aren't you guys here yet?" The girl on the other phone said, "He didn't have a date, so I told him to just come with me. He's really nice and I'm having fun."

I grabbed a piece of chocolate cake, scarfed it down, and headed out. I was meeting some friends at a late showing of Star Wars. One of the students said to me, "Aren't you staying to see who will be the prom king?" I shook my head and smiled. Watching the movie brought back more great memories from my childhood.

Crash your party? Call 619-235-3000 x421 and leave an invitation for Josh Board.

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