Proms and “The Twelfth of Never”

It’s prom season in America.

Do you remember your senior prom?

The twelfth of June never fails to remind me of mine.

The prom committee named our prom “The Twelfth of Never,” and it’s easy to remember why.  The prom took place on June 12th.  The name was also that of a popular song recorded by Johnny Mathis–one of my favorites on his album, “Johnny’s Greatest Hits.”

As one of Johnny’s fans, I owned this album and played it over and over till I knew the words to all of the songs, including this one.  Many of his songs became standards, and PBS has recently been showcasing his music in one of its most appealing fund-raising lures.

I immortalized the song title in my own small way by writing in my novel Jealous Mistress that the protagonist, Alison Ross, hears it playing while she shops in her supermarket in 1981: “My fellow shoppers were gliding up and down the aisles of the Jewel, picking items off shelves to the tune of ‘The Twelfth of Never.’”

When I was 11 or 12, my favorite crooner was Eddie Fisher, who was then at the top of his game.  But by my last year of high school, I’d shifted my loyalties to Johnny Mathis and Harry Belafonte.  In addition to Johnny’s album, I treasured Belafonte’s astonishing “Belafonte” LP and played it, like Johnny’s, over and over, learning those words, too.

Although I wasn’t part of the prom committee (I was busy chairing the luncheon committee), and “the twelfth of never” referred to a date when something was never going to happen, I was okay with the name the committee chose.  My more pressing concern was who would be my date.  Would it be my current crush, a friend since first grade who’d metamorphosed into the man of my dreams?  (I hoped so.)  Would it be last year’s junior prom date?  (I hoped not.)  Who exactly would it be?

As luck would have it, an amiable and very bright classmate named Allen stepped forward and asked me to go to the prom.  I could finally relax on that score.  But we weren’t really on the same wave length.  When we went on a few other dates before prom, they became increasingly awkward.

On one date we saw “Some Like It Hot” at a filled-to-capacity downtown Chicago movie theater, where we sat in the last row of the balcony.  The film was terrific (it’s been judged the top comedy film of all time by the American Film Institute), and Allen clearly loved it.  His delight unfortunately ended in an ache or two.  When he heard the last line, spoken by Joe E. Brown to Jack Lemmon (“Well, nobody’s perfect”), Allen laughed uproariously, threw his head back, and hit it on the wall behind our seats.  I felt sorry for him—it must have hurt—but it was still pretty hard to stifle a laugh.  (I don’t think it hurt his brainpower, though.  As I recall, Allen went on to enroll at MIT.)

Although the bloom was off the rose by the time the prom came along, Allen and I went off happily together to dance on the ballroom floor of the downtown Knickerbocker Hotel, noted for the floor’s colored lights.  (The Knickerbocker spent the 1970s as the icky Playboy Towers but since then reverted to its original name.)  We then proceeded to celebrate some more by watching the remarkable ice-skating show offered on a tiny rink surrounded by tables filled with patrons, like a bunch of us prom-goers, at still another big hotel downtown.

Most of us were unknowingly living through an era of innocence.  For some of my classmates, the prom may have involved heavy kissing, but I doubt that much more than that happened.  In my case, absolutely nothing happened except for a chaste kiss at the end of the evening.

For better or worse, proms have evolved into a whole different scene.  In April, The Wall Street Journal noted that although the rules of prom used to be simple, they’re more complicated today.  At Boylan Catholic High School in Illinois, for example, a 21-page rulebook governs acceptable prom-wear.  Other schools require pre-approval of the prom dresses students plan to wear–in one school by a coach, in another by a three-person committee.

Administrators add new rules every year “to address new trends and safety concerns.” These have included banning canes, boys’ ponytails, and saggy pants, as well as two-piece dresses that might reveal midriffs and dresses with mesh cutouts that suggest bare skin.

But students have begun to revolt.  The students at Boylan Catholic have organized their own prom, arguing that the 21-page dress code contributed to body-shaming.  They point to a rule that states: “Some girls may wear the same dress, but due to body types, one dress may be acceptable while the other is not.”  A male student who helped organize Morp (the alternative prom) said that “girls were offended…. Somebody needed to step up and do something.”

At a school in Alabama, one student hoped to take his grandmother to his prom since she’d never been to one, but her age exceeded the maximum of 20, so she wasn’t allowed to go.  The student was “mad,” skipped the school prom, and celebrated at his grandmother’s home instead.  Not surprisingly, the school defended its rule, stating that it wanted to discourage students’ inviting older relatives who might present a safety issue by drinking alcohol:  “It just causes problems.”  But the school district later joined with a senior center to host an annual prom for senior citizens.  Presumably, Granny went to a prom after all.

According to the Journal, New York City students have another option altogether.  The New York Public Library hosts an annual free “Anti-Prom” in June for students 12 to 18, who can attend in any garb they choose.

In the Bay Area, another phenomenon has occurred:  “promposals”–photos and videos posted on social media in which one student asks another one to prom.  The San Francisco Chronicle views these as a way for kids “to turn themselves into YouTube, Twitter and Instagram sensations.”  In 2014, a boy trotted up to school on a horse, holding a sign that asked his girlfriend to “ride to prom” with him.  Last year, a kid built a makeshift “castle” and wrote a Shakespearean-style play to ask a friend to prom.  And in Berkeley, a boy choreographed a hip-hop dance routine with a bunch of other kids and performed it for his hoped-for date in front of 200 classmates.

In April, the Chronicle reported data on the national emergence of promposals.  From only 17 on Twitter in 2009, the number grew to 764,000 in 2015, while on YouTube, videos went from 56,000 in 2009 to 180,000 last year.  (Millions of teens also post pictures about the prom itself on Instagram.)  The promposal phenomenon may be dying down, with fewer elaborate ones noted this year at a school in Oakland.  But who knows?

One thing we know for certain:  The high school prom-scene has changed.

But even though things have changed, prom-goers today are still teenagers much like us when we went to prom, with all of the insecurities and anxieties that go along with being a teen.

For me, mostly-happy memories of “The Twelfth of Never” return every year on the twelfth of June.   Maybe mostly-happy, or not-so-happy, memories of your prom return every year as well.

As Johnny’s song reminds us, our memories of prom can endure for “a long, long time.”

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One response to “Proms and “The Twelfth of Never”

  1. What a great window into the world of proms. Yours sounds lovely… And a more innocent prom is probably something a lot of teens wish for today! I recall my prom for the odd moments: styling my “vintage” dress (from a classy rummage sale) with long gloves… riding in style in my friend’s date’s sports car (his mother’s!)… watching the city lights sparkle on the way back home super late. We didn’t take it very seriously at the time, but today, some of that magic lingers – and I’m glad I went.

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