29. March 2005 · Comments Off on Grad Night · Categories: Ain't That America?, Domestic, General

My high school had a football team, and a senior prom, a (suspected) gay drama teacher, and the usual dramatic mix of brains, stoners, soshes, gangsters and outcasts amongst the students, but everyone gave each other lots of elbow room. The boys in the drama class gave their teacher an especially wide margin when it came to those after-school workshops, taking care to always be in groups of three or more. The coterie of brains— a loose alliance of juniors and seniors taking Honors and AE (Academically Enriched) courses— met at the third table over in the lunch room at noon, and in Herr Goulding’s third-year German class, and had nothing but lofty derision and scorn for such things as school spirit, the football team, student government, and the “soshes”— the school social set.

They were the glamorous, attractive, and popular kids who rated not only pictures of their chic selves in singles and couples in the pages of the school annual, but appeared multiple times in the various group photos of various clubs. We brains derived sardonic amusement out of noting that if there were twenty brains and one sosh in a club, invariably the sosh would be the president of it. We derived even more amusement from the suspicion that for a lot of soshes, high school would be the peak of their whole lives. Like the stoners, gangsters and the outcasts, we were only putting up with it, as long as our parents, teachers and truant authorities all variously insisted we had to be there. We could hardly wait for the day that we could pack up our high GPAs and our outstanding SATs and swap the Depression-era Spanish Colonial precincts of Verdugo Hills High for college! For real academic challenges! For a bigger library than the single long, book-lined room, where I had already read every bit of fiction and most of the interesting non-fiction. Not for us all that pseudo Ken-and-Barbie stuff; we had plans! Real plans, beyond this conformist sports-letter and student-council sucking up to the oppressors in this soulless teen-aged concentration camp, moving like automatons from class to class every 55 minutes… oh, yeah, by the calendar, the 1960ies were official over, but the aftereffects still lingered.

And there was a bigger problem for us, with that whole prom mind-set. It was a couples kind of thing… you know, for people who were going steady or dating. The brains who were my friends, the coterie around the lunchroom third-table-over were overwhelmingly male, three our four girls to a dozen or twenty boys… and boys who were, to be fair, not at the peak of their physical attractiveness, or social assurance. (The male of our species is NOT at his best at the age of 14-18. Trust me on this. Or look at your own high school annual.) And besides that, we were all friends; it would be icky to pair off with one of them— like dating your brother.

It really never occurred to any of the rest of us to go stag, or with a mixed circle of friends. Tradition still had enough of a hold that we didn’t even consider it. And it was a sosh kind of party; all rented tuxedos for the boys, and for the girls, shiny sateen prom dresses, towering architectural hair, stiff with hairspray, and a spackling of Maybelline over an acne outbreak, raccoon eyes shadowed and mascaraed to a farethewell. It didn’t really look like all that much fun, and the costs— dress, tux, tickets, even in those fairly undeveloped days— were something to consider. We were above it, anyway. And grad night, which cost only half as much as a prom ticket… no contest as far as the chance of having fun and not looking like a dork went.

Grad Night at Disneyland had only been started a few years before, so it was still being held on one single night, usually the evening after commencement exercises. Graduating seniors converged on Disneyland from all over California for Grad Night, from San Diego, from the string of towns along the Central Valley— there was even a graduating class that flew in from Honolulu. The parking lot in Anaheim became a shoal of yellow school busses, bringing in more and more grads, all neatly and formally dressed; the theory is that if you are dressed in your best, you will tend to behave. I wound up sharing a seat in the grad night bus with John W., whom I had known since 5th grade, when he was plump and pallid and looked like he had been carved out of a potato. He didn’t talk much then (or ever) but he had built a whole model of a frontier fort out of wooden matchsticks, everything beautifully detailed, with tiny trees and little hills and a gravel road, and after that everyone knew he was super-intelligent, but since he never talked much… well, no one had any idea of exactly how intelligent. In junior high, a good friend of mine who had ambitions to be the Dolly Levi of the 8th grade, had tried to match us up, on the grounds that we were both so brainy, we must have lots in common… but yeesh! She was talking inarticulate, potato-boy here, not Shawn N. (on whom I had an enduring crush, from about the 7th grade on, until well after high school graduation). My friend’s clever matchmaking scheme didn’t work— until the bus ride to Disneyland, and we had to share a seat because we were the only two not paired with a friend, already.

It actually turned out to be quite pleasant; John actually warmed up and made intelligent conversation, now that we were both sprung from constraints of high school— nothing like what anyone had ever expected from him. They herded us unto Disneyland, and locked the gates in mid-evening, and after that the whole place belonged to the seniors, until sunrise the next morning; all the rides were free, there were shows and music, and fairy lights glittering in the trees, the arcades and restaurants were open all night. Although most of the kids started to drag, along about four in the morning, and recumbent bodies strewn everywhere— sleeping on the benches, or on the soft grass, under the stars and the lights—Oh, it was wonderful, and fun, and a great way to celebrate leaving high school behind. I don’t have any pictures, and I never saw John again, as he was off to study nuclear engineering at a state university somewhere, but I’ll hold that there is no possible way that any prom, anywhere in the world, could ever beat Grad Night, 1972.

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