Psst! Put your money in 'prom futures'

Thirty-three years ago, my future wife and I approached a small card table stationed just outside our high school cafeteria and purchased two prom tickets. Sales had been less than brisk up to that point. We were only the fourth couple out of a senior class of 450 students to buy the $25 ticket for two. Two weeks later, after only a handful of tickets had been sold, the prom was canceled and our money refunded. So far as I know, it was the only year in our high school's history without a prom. The war in Vietnam was generally held accountable for this lack of school spirit: We were all too busy picketing draft boards and marching on Washington to bother with gowns and corsages.

Thankfully, times have changed, and recent cataclysmic events have cemented rather than fractured this year's graduating seniors. As the big night approaches, prom fever is running high, preoccupying our daughter and all her friends.

Having missed our prom, my wife and I are taking vicarious pleasure in the preparations and excitement. But the cost has us reeling. More than simple inflation accounts for the difference. Today's prom doesn't share the same universe as those of our era. Its order of magnitude is altogether different; it's a Boeing 747 versus the canvas-winged biplanes of an earlier age.

What does it cost? You don't want to know! The prom ticket alone is now $280 per couple, more than 11 times what we paid in the spring of 1970. Of course, we expected little more than a brightly decorated gym, soda and chips, and a slightly more upscale band than the teenage groups that usually played at school dances.

Our daughter has far greater expectations. Her class will not gather in a gym or cafeteria but in Manhattan at Chelsea Piers. They will not arrive on foot or by car but by stretch limo, paying as much as $300 a couple for the privilege. When the prom ends, they will move en masse to a club across town that charges an additional $80 per couple before their limos whisk them back home for the $30 traditional breakfast at the municipal pool.

Is anyone doing the math? So far I'm up to roughly $700 per couple - and that doesn't include prom gowns and fittings, dyed shoes and handbags, tuxedos, after-prom "club dresses," jewelry, hair styling, makeup, nail appointments, corsages, and boutonnieres. In a single generation, the high school prom has gone from being a $25 teen dance to a celebrity wedding that costs what a friend of ours refers to as a "suburban unit." (Virtually every expense in suburban life, he maintains, can be calculated in $1,000 increments or "units": orthodontia, five units; bathroom renovation, 25 units; car repair, half a unit to two units.) It's madness!

Who is paying for all this extravagance, I wonder? I know I am. But is every other senior parent blithely doing the same, or are some enterprising, self-sufficient seniors taking it upon themselves to pay for this lavish indulgence? (Did someone just whisper, "Get real!"?) I ask only because I was never consulted, polled, or even warned, but simply presented with the bill. If memory serves, we once fought a revolution over a similar oversight.

On this occasion, however, I kept my troops quartered and only ranted a bit. "Is the limo really necessary?" I asked our graduating senior. "You're all going to the same place, why not hire a bus? And why does it have to be in Manhattan? What's wrong with using the high school or a local hotel? And what's with this club business? Isn't one extravagant party per night sufficient? And a club dress? What's the point of paying so much for a prom gown if you're not even going to wear it the whole night? And since when can't you do your own hair, nails, and makeup? Isn't this all totally out of control?" To which our daughter answered: "Dad, it's my senior prom." End of discussion.

So, naturally, we paid every bill and applauded each gown brought home on contingency, each club dress, the shorts and T-shirts intended for the pool breakfast, the jewelry loaned and gifted by mother and grandmother; we made appointments for fittings, negotiated with limo companies, spent days in search of matching shoes and handbags, and we signed up to scramble eggs at 3 a.m. by the pool.

Do I object to all of this? Of course I do. Am I complicitous? Of course I am. Should something be done to reign in this excess? Absolutely, and soon. In two years we face twice the expense when our twins graduate. So who's going to do something?

I haven't a clue.

If this were my prom, I'd want my last memory of high school to be situated in the place that meant so much to me for four years, not in some faceless catering hall or night club. Does my daughter share this sentiment? Not for a minute. And if I spent so much on a prom gown or, in my case, a tuxedo, I wouldn't be in such a hurry to change out of it. But there, too, I'm hopelessly out of date.

Hollywood has set the tone. Every lavish party has become a première. Life is now in constant competition with a parallel celluloid universe that conditions our expectations and responses.

Perhaps, somewhere, lurking behind all this excessive preparation, is the understanding that what truly awaits our seniors is not stardom but simply dinner and dancing. And perhaps that's just too prosaic a realization. Why not inflate the whole event, extending its five-hour duration by several weeks of busy, breathless anticipation? Why not transform "a prom" into "THE PROM"?

So what's my point? I guess I'm just checking in, comparing notes, giving voice to middle-aged astonishment. Truth be told, I'm looking forward to seeing our daughter and her date all decked out, to snapping her picture and adding a few more minutes to the video record of a childhood that seems to have passed in less time than it takes to view those tapes. As she steps into the limo, my wife and I will send her off not with nostalgic longing for the prom we never attended, but for a childhood too quickly spent. How is it possible that not only our own school days are over but our daughter's as well? I'm not yet ready to give it all up.

Well, perhaps we'll get to enjoy the process one more time with grandchildren. In the meantime, I'm going to start saving for that future prom. If the past is any guide, a suburban unit won't even begin to cover it.

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