I was there for the chicken tenders, and the little pigs in the blanket. The kids were there for the drama, the dancing, and the pictures that would preserve this night for years to come. It was prom.
We have prom at a venue in the middle of the Bronx. On this night, it’s filled with middle school proms. Outside, kids in unnatural colors of satin and tulle pile out of cars, the clingy materials riding up on them, the girls teetering in their first attempt at 4 inch heels. The dresses are chartreuse, magenta, aqua and gold. The girls have their hair done and their eyebrows plucked, and their nails done - long acrylic tips with designs of hearts or flowers painted on. The boys wear suits or tuxes. On Southern Boulevard or Fordham Road you can but a full suit for $70, including shoes. They have fresh hair-cuts or ‘shapeups’ (a shapeup is when you have the barber clean up the edges of your buzz cut, making sharp, 90 degree angles and straight lines along your hairline).
There are tables with tablecloths, and chairs draped in heavy covers. Balloons float up from the centerpieces on the tables, and the DJ sits up on a stage. Despite the evidence that this venue is something of a factory, mass-producing middle school proms, it feels special to the students, who are rarely in such a fancy place for an event. The march in, feeling beautiful, ready to pose for pictures. As they enter, they scan the crowd for a friend to cling to, and then rush towards them. They ooh and ahh over one another. The lights aren’t dimmed yet, so no dancing takes place. The boys clump, and the girls clump, and when the food comes out, they all rush towards it unabashedly.
Eventually the lights are dimmed and the dancing starts, adolescents rubbing up against one another, showing off, moving in ways that they would never want their parents to see them move. The next day they will run around, begging that any videos of them dancing be deleted, for fear of their mother finding out, but for this moment, everyone feels special and attractive, and close to these friends that they have been with for so many years.
In truth, I felt proud of my students, watching their easy confidence. With this crowd, there are very few who exhibit the awkwardness and self-consciousness that plagues so many middle schoolers. I wonder why this is - if perhaps there is a less rigidly defined box that they are supposed to fit into, if the standards by which they judge one another are lower than they are in other communities.
The kids paid $40 each for this night. Then they paid for a dress, shoes, hair-do, eyebrow wax, manicure and pedicure. Last week they paid $28 for their senior trip - a boat ride around Manhattan, and before that, $60 for their cap and gown, and yearbook. Graduating from middle school comes at a cost.
Unsurprisingly, the costs are prohibitive to many of the kids. It’s not a responsible fiscal decision to spend half your paycheck on your child’s senior activities, when there are so many other pressing needs. Several students in my class were not going to be able to attend. A couple of weeks ago, one of my students approached me and asked if we could do a fundraiser to raise money for the kids who couldn’t afford prom. This unusual display of altruism caught me off guard, and I quickly agreed, not wanting to be responsible for stifling any sign of generosity or caring in my students. We thought of ideas for raising money, and struggled to think of a good way to quickly raise money, and properly allocate it. We didn’t want to bring attention to the struggles of some kids, making it an embarrassing situation for them, but it was a challenge to have a public fundraiser for just a few students, without drawing attention to the recipients.
I decided to send out an email to close friends and family, explaining the situation, and asking if they would like to ‘sponsor a senior’. The money would go to the seniors who were likely to miss out on these activities. For some seniors, I would have said good riddance, but many of the ones who were unable to go were kids who I have seen terrific growth in, who work exceptionally hard, despite living in shelters, having unemployed parents, and generally facing some of the worst circumstances.
The response was surprising - everyone quickly pledged to contribute. The money collected went to 6 students, covering various expenses that their parents couldn’t. I told the girl whose idea the whole thing had been, and her eyes grew large.
“Really? They just want to give it? Why?” she asked, confused by the prospect. I explained to her that sometimes if people were in a position to help someone, they felt good about doing so. Her smile spread across her face. “That’s so nice! Miss, your friends are so nice. I want white friends! White people are so nice!”
We went shopping for a prom dress. S, the girl who came up with the fundraising idea, met me on 14th street with D, the girl who we were shopping for. We went to Forever 21, and they loaded their arms with tiny, shiny sparkly dresses. In the fitting room, they giggled as they squeezed into the clothes, before emerging to have me say that it was too tight, and to try again.
S, who weighs in at 76 pounds, laughed as she tried to zipper the zipper on D’s much larger frame. “Omigod D, you’re type fat!” she said. Both girls laughed. Apparently body image is less of a problem for these 13 year olds than it was when I was 13.
We went to H&M, where the dresses came in larger sizes, and finally found one. They were excited, but looked at me hesitantly. “This dress is type expensive,” they explained. It was $39.99. We picked out matching earrings and bracelets for another $9. D jumped up and down in the long line for the register.
The money also bought shoes and a prom ticket for M, a sweet, hardworking, pleasant girl whose family has been living in a shelter for 9 months. It paid for C, a boy who has matured more than any other, from a deviant child into a kid who i can count on, trust, and who helps out when he is given the opportunity. It paid for A, who has been in 12 different foster homes in the last 8 years. It paid for D, a boy who had no family show up for his graduation, or to hear him sing in the school shows.
For any student, there is a compelling story that makes it worthwhile to contribute, and to help them out. Perhaps it is a financial reason - the family is financially unstable, not sure what they will eat at night, or how to buy the kids new clothes when they need it. For Christmas we bought one girl a winter coat, because she waited for 2 hours in the cold after school every day for her dad to pick her up. Or perhaps money isn’t the biggest problem. Maybe there is abuse in their family, either physical, or emotional. Maybe there is addiction to drugs or alcohol. Maybe they suffer because of difficulties in their parents relationships. Maybe a sibling is in jail, or having a baby at the age of 15. These are the stories that are my students lives. Every one of them can break your heart, move you, inspire you.
A neighbor of mine gave a generous contribution, with the note said,
"In my job, I find sometimes it is necessary to balance the karma in the
world. Thanks for giving me the opportunity."
In her job, she sees stories like these every day, and knows all too well the overwhelming hopelessness that you can feel when you look at the situations. I am lucky. I am looking at the more hopeful part of the picture. I see the faces of the kids, who still have a chance to grow up and have something better. And yet even for me it feels hopeless sometimes.
We can’t fix their problems, or save them from their own lives. But I have given a lot of thought to the idea of ‘balancing the karma’. Maybe giving them a night to feel special, to dance and laugh with people who they love, to feel like they have accomplished something worth being acknowledged by a ceremony - maybe that’s as much balance that we are capable of giving. And maybe it’s enough.