Prom Ponderings

Prom. Regardless of whether your experience was awesome or awful, you can assure that it’s likely a night you won’t forget.

I hadn’t thought much about prom in the past few years—it was fun, but not the most memorable night of my life (I went to two proms with two different guy friends). I was reminded of the event at work yesterday. One of my jobs is working as an Upward Bound tutor, where I tutor low-income High School students from 3 Des Moines high schools  (Lincoln, Hoover, and Roosevelt). Since the majority of their questions involve Chemistry or Calculus, we mostly end up chatting. I couldn’t fake an understanding of chemical equations even if I were given a free supply of food for a year.

The topic of conversation yesterday? Prom. Their prom is April 10th, so prom preparations are in full-force. A few girls had pictures of their dresses, and one even had hers to show. The conversation eventually moved from dresses and dates to price.

Although I know that all of the students are considered low-income, we never discuss this directly. The vast majority of the students have to pay for all their own bills, and some even have to give the income they make at their part-time jobs directly to their parents. One student even has to give her stepdad $15 each time he drives her anywhere because he’s “taking time out of his day” (he is currently unemployed, and, from what she says, he spends the majority of his day in front of the TV). Another has to take on early morning shifts at the airport to provide for her parents; her father has a 6th grade education and her mother speaks minimal English and works at Wal-Mart.

We were discussing prom yesterday when one student, Erin, mentioned that she just bought her dress, which she found at Goodwill for $5. She was so excited about it, and it was so pretty (she was the student who had the dress to show). Yet she wasn’t sure it was right for prom—it fell to the middle of her calves, and she thought a long dress may be more appropriate for prom—but she didn’t think she could afford another dress. Another student mentioned that there were free dresses available through a program at another high school. Erin was ecstatic.

Our discussion really made me think. My prom dress wasn’t ridiculously expensive (it was about $160)—or so I thought—and I didn’t think twice about it at the time. Yet, ultimately, feeling pretty at prom isn’t about the price tag. I could have easily found a less expensive dress and had just as much fun.

There are so many other money-related things that I don’t think twice about. I spend more money on a single drink or a loaf of bread than Erin spent on her prom dress. I work because I enjoy it and it helps make a (small) dent in my debt—not because my family requires it. I spent my hours after- and before-school doing homework, at practice, or hanging out with friends when I was in high school, not working exhausting shifts at an airport.

I admire these students so much. They tell me these stories not to gain my sympathy—but merely just to chat. They share some great stories—both serious and silly—that make me laugh and so excited to teach someday. We move from deep discussions about price to dense ones about the plots of MTV shows (seriously, we had an entire discussion about this yesterday), and I learn a bit more every time.

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