I have only vague memories of our Leaver's Disco in the Upper Sixth. I remember thinking how hard it was to dance to "Two Tribes" by Frankie Goes To Hollywood and fervently wishing I hadn't worn a WHITE dress. I had been heavily influenced by the Evelyn Waugh novels I had been reading and was aiming for the 1920's look, I had the bob and I had the drop-waisted dress. I started the evening looking like a Wimbledon finalist from 1928 and thanks to several drunken 18 year olds, ended up looking like I was wearing a Jackson Pollock canvas.
These days, instead of a Leaver's Disco we have the PROM. I have read, with only a passing interest, about this phenomena imported from America and how vast amounts of time, energy and hard cash are invested in the "Prom Experience."I am guilty of sneering at the idea and have been known to chuckle at photographs in the local paper of orange-coloured girls, caked in make-up, looking like extras from a John Water's film, squeezing into stretch limousines.
Then it all lands on your doorstep, doesn't it? My daughter is fifteen and there have been rumblings about "the prom" for a couple of years now. This year, my niece, who is the school year above her, had her prom. It is fair to say that we have had months of stress as she chose her dress, her shoes, her make-up and so on. Prom day arrived and I was prepared to be cynical and ready to stifle my giggles. However, things don't always turn out the way you think.
The day began with a Leaver's Mass at the school. I only know my niece and a handful of others there, but the Mass was such an emotional experience. Scores of youngsters sang "Do Not Be Afraid" as they set out into the grown up world of college and employment. I was instantly transported back to my school days and I saw the same tribes; the pretty ones, the plain ones, the serious ones, the cocky ones..all on the cusp of adulthood, not knowing how their future would unfold but all hoping for the best. The service ended with photographs of the children throughout their school lives beamed onto a huge screen with "Never Forget" playing in the background. It is safe to say, there was not a dry eye in the place.
In the evening, my daughter and I went to my niece's house where her grandmother, mum, brother and great aunt were all buzzing with anticipation. Ilaria descended the stairs and it was impossible not to become dewy eyed at this excited sixteen (almost) year old, head girl of the school and looking so beautiful and nervously looking forward to the night ahead.
We all went to the school where hundreds of people had turned out to see their children off. Girls were preening like beautiful peacocks, chattering with the cold and nervous energy and be-suited boys hung around in packs, hands in pockets, looking bashful.
It was a timeless scene, played out over the ages, across all cultures. Girls and boys turning into men and women, a huge pre-courtship ritual as the elder players gracefully bow out. The prom goers jostled onto the coaches, and those who were left behind stood and waved. We waved them off into the night and into their post- school lives, all carrying their own hopes and dreams. Life will probably not turn out the way they plan, but on this night, anything was imaginable. I defy any cynic not to have been as tearful as me as the coaches pulled away.
So, yes, Prom nights are a commercialised con, yet another way of extracting cash from children and their long-suffering parents. However, on a cold May evening in Swinton, I saw the bigger picture and I was enchanted.