It’s prom season. This past weekend, I found myself at a coordinated photo-op for students at one of the local high schools. We were there to see my wife’s nephew and his girlfriend, who had been eagerly planning this night for months. Dozens of other prom-bound teens moved around the botanical gardens, their family members following them, cell phone cameras always at the ready. There were good-looking athletic guys in tuxes and beautiful girls in gorgeous gowns. There were awkward kids who looked uncomfortable and ill at ease. There were rebels who wore intentionally dated dresses or accentuated their tuxedos with silly ball hats.
“It looks like a John Hughes movie threw up in here,” I commented to my wife.
That was a silly joke, but also kind of a personal one. I opted to skip my own prom as a high schooler. People have asked me why over the years. I’ve said it was because I don’t like overly formal events (which is true) and that I didn’t have anyone I really wanted to go with (also largely true). But the reality is both far more complicated and far simpler than that.
I didn’t go to my prom because of Pretty in Pink.
Written by John Hughes and directed by Howard Deutch, Pretty in Pink opened on February 28, 1986. I saw it a week before, at one of the “nationwide sneak previews” that were all the rage at the time. Basically, certain movies were granted one-off showings a week before their regular release to build word-of-mouth. By this time, my views on high school had changed. For my freshman, sophomore, and junior years, I felt as though I was in a constant struggle to fit in. I wasn’t popular and I wasn’t unpopular. I was just sort of there. Shyness and lack of self-confidence prevented me from opening up to people outside my very small circle of close friends. My guess is that those qualities were mistaken for stand-offishness by my peers. (One of my former classmates lives two doors up the street from me. I should walk over and ask if that’s true.) Furthermore, my personal interests were quirky. Forget football games or school dances. Much of my time was spent playing trombone in the school band, memorizing old Saturday Night Live and SCTV skits, or obsessively seeing every single movie that came through town.
Never quite fitting in gave me an outsider’s perspective on the high school experience – the cliques, the attitudes, the social strata. Hughes’ own The Breakfast Club had perfectly given voice to that perspective the year before, which only heightened my awareness of it. (For all intents and purposes, I was an Anthony Michael Hall.) That’s why, when I returned for my senior year, I decided to take a “screw it all” attitude. I did what made me happy, without worrying about how others saw me. My interest in playing by the “rules” of high school was gone. It had become clear that I needed to stop trying to do what everyone else was doing and make decisions that were right for me.
As for prom, I remained undecided. On one hand, it was a time-honored tradition. An adult co-worker at the drug store where I was employed as a stock boy repeatedly begged me go, saying that I would regret it for the rest of my life if I missed this right-of-passage — an admittedly scary thought. On the other hand, I’d lost interest in the time-honored traditions of high school. They hadn’t filled me with much purpose up to that point, so it didn’t seem like prom would turn the tide. I didn’t know what to do, and my feelings about it changed from day to day.
Then I went to see Pretty in Pink. As everyone knows, it’s the story of a financially disadvantaged girl named Andie (played by Molly Ringwald) who is asked to prom by well-to-do popular kid Blane (Andrew McCarthy), much to the dismay of her quirky best friend Duckie (Jon Cryer), who just assumed she would go with him. Blane’s snobby rich friends don’t approve of the date either, which leads to all kinds of dramatic complications.
Watching the film, some very clear messages began to emerge. Like who you like. Do what makes you happy. Stop worrying about what everyone else says. Don’t let anyone else define you. You don’t need to fit a pre-conceived image to have worth. The movie was articulating things that were already tinkering around inside my head.
The seminal moment, though, comes a little more than halfway through. Duckie confronts Blane’s elitist best friend Steff (James Spader), who has essentially pressured Blane to rescind the invitation to prom, leaving Andie brokenhearted. In an empty hallway, Duckie tackles Steff and begins pummeling him. The handsome, rich jerk and the eccentric-but-sincere outcast scuffle on the floor. Two teachers arrive to break up the fight. As the melee ends, Duckie runs down the hall, jumps up, and — with one hand — rips down a prom banner hanging from the ceiling, balling it up and casting it aside.
Here is that moment. I’m sure many of you know it well.
It is difficult to describe how I felt when Duckie ripped down that banner, except to say that there was abrupt clarity. I realized that there is so much pressure (from others or, even worse, from oneself) associated with prom. You have to go because it’s expected of you. You have to go with the “right” person. Girls have to wear the “right” dress. There can be judgement if you get anything “wrong.” Teenagers are pressured, or pressure themselves, into believing that they must have a perfectly magical experience that will be a high point in their lives. I neither needed nor wanted such pressure. I didn’t want to go back to feeling as though I had to do the conventional things in order to fit in with some societal notion of what a teenager was supposed to be. Duckie ripped down that banner and, no lie, I nearly stood up and cheered.
And the words that went through my mind in that exact second were, I am not going to prom!
My co-worker at the drug store repeatedly urged me to change my mind. I sensed that my parents were disappointed, although they accepted my decision. My friends were understanding. A couple of them had, via their own reasoning, opted to skip the prom, too. Regardless of whether people told me I was making a mistake or giving me a theoretical You go, boy!, I knew that I had made the right choice. I didn’t need prom to validate who I was. It didn’t matter whether or not I chose to take part in this tradition because, for the first time in my life, I had some semblance of who I was as a person. Nothing about prom was going to clarify that any further.
I wished my friends who were going to prom well and told them to have a good time. I was genuinely happy for those who wanted to go, even if the experience wasn’t for me personally. On prom night…well, you can probably guess what I did that evening. I went to the movies with two friends, one male, one female. We went to see the now-forgotten Judd Nelson/Ally Sheedy thriller Blue City. It was an okay movie. I sat in my theater seat, knowing that many of my peers were all dressed up, dancing and eating and maybe even hoping to get lucky afterward. Some were having the night of their lives. Others were probably having their hearts broken. (Hey, it happens at prom sometimes.) I didn’t regret not being there with them. I was at the movies, where I felt comfortable and at home. Where I felt like me.
Despite what people said, I’ve never regretted my decision to skip prom. Not for a second. Now, as an adult, I realize that I was right in the belief that it wouldn’t mean anything to me in the long run anyway. No prom could ever match the meaning of my wedding day, or the many magical moments that come with having a child, or any of the professional accomplishments I’ve achieved. It would have just been a thing I’d have done for the wrong reasons, out of a misguided sense of obligation.
I have nothing against prom. Many kids go, have a wonderful time, and cherish the memory. That’s great. But it’s also not me, and I had to learn that it’s okay if things are “not me.” Pretty in Pink helped significantly in that process.