There are different ways to chaperone a high school dance. You can go the aggressive route, monitoring the dance floor, eagle-eyed, asserting your authority before shenanigans even have time to take place. You are the Judge Dredd of the gymnasium, taking mental measurements between the gyrating hips of those you serve in loco parentis, ready to bring the smack down at the slightest sight of contact.
Or, of course, you can go the tough-but-fair option, letting the kids have their fun until things start to get out of hand. Then, with an adult command of the situation and a measured response, you step in and tell the kids that that is not appropriate behavior and to cut it out. This is the optimum tactic, we’d all agree.
But there is a third option. One where you don’t really chaperone the dance at all, and rather sit outside in the gym entranceway, staring at your shoelaces, until you’re joined by two of the quieter, nerdier students you teach, and the three of you will mumble things about how hot it is in there, until the dance mercifully ends and you can all go home.
I was called on to chaperone a dance when I taught high school a few years back. I was the head soccer coach and taught Lit and Poetry for the summer session at a boarding school in New England. For most of the summer, my job duties were exactly what I expected… I taught class in the morning, I coached soccer in the afternoon, at night I helped the kids in my dorm with their homework and made sure they went to bed at a reasonable hour. This was all well and good.
Well, actually, the living in the dorm thing was a little bizarre, because it became clear quickly that the kids who were in my stead gave no mind to the idea that I had “off nights,” and would knock on my door 24/7, and generally treat my tiny faculty room as their own common area. Being a young faculty member is tough in that the kids A) saw my age and concluded I must be at least a little cool and B) knew that I legally/professionally could not be mean to them like their classmates could. So my little room was popular. Kids knocked every night. Mostly to talk about school. Sometimes about girls. A lot about soccer. One of the quieter guys on my hall learned that I liked Marvel cards growing up — which yeah, I did — and he would come over to my place every night to watch trailers of the new X-Men movie that was coming out, discuss our favorite characters, etc. (Nightcrawler, for those of you keeping score at home.)
Anyway, I could handle all that. I could handle the dorm. I could handle teaching poetry, even though I had to institute a “No poems about your FEELINGS” policy after week three. (After week seven the ban was lifted, once they promised me they would keep the angst level down to a seven out of ten.)
My literature class was a little tougher because, due to some scheduling snafu, the class was 13 sophomore girls and me. So, yeah. If you’ve ever heard the term “walking on egg shells,” I think it applies here. A male college senior lecturing a baker’s dozen of 15-year-old girls is a delicate situation to say the least. It took about five weeks for any of them to say anything in class. Imagine the scene in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (“Anyone? Anyone?”) combined with the tension/angst/nervousness that comes with a 23-year-old dude lecturing a group of 15-year-old girls.
(Suffice it to say, because I’m not in jail and not a pervert, nothing bad happened at all. The girls started talking in class, and some took to the material. The awkwardness died down, and eventually we all could joke about the fact that the class was 100% female. Though the fact that this scenario was probably icky for you to read about (it felt all kinds of icky to write) gives you just an idea of how fraught the entire situation was.)
The reason I tell you all this isn’t to spew out my past, but rather to give you guys a sense of the players here when I was called upon to chaperone the final dance. Yes, the final dance. Held on the last night. The theme was Under the Stars, which didn’t make a lot of sense because the dance was indoors, but what do I know.
The night began at the dorm, where the boys were all dressing up in whatever clothes one thinks is cool and classy in high school. (The dance was a semi-formal.) Being that I was one of two people in the dorm who knew how to tie a tie, I was called into service for the better part of two hours helping the boys get ready. Too much cologne was sprayed. I took about 2300 photos. I helped a Native American boy in my dorm (he came on an exchange program from Albuquerque) put on his tie, and then watched as he Skyped his parents back home. His mom started crying. I got a little choked up too. She thanked me over and over.
Then I lined up all the boys on the front steps of the dorm and told them to smile. Some did. Others did the tough look thing, putting their chins up and crossing their arms. The oldest one in the group was 17. The youngest was 13. The Abercrombie cologne was noticeable from a dozen yards away.
We walked over to the dance in a group. (The kids had all, as a school, decided that dates were lame that year, so none of them asked anyone. I don’t know what that says about current youth relations, or if this is a norm now. I can only report what I saw.) It was still light out when we walked over. (In New England August the sun doesn’t set until like 9 p.m., for those of you unfamiliar.) There’s nothing quite so ridiculous as walking to a big party in your nicest clothing when the sun is still out. It’s totally silly, and combined with the oppressive heat (it was 80 Fahrenheit easy) it made it so some of the heftier boys in the dorm had instant and unfortunate sweating situations going on. But the boys didn’t let it get to them. There was a giddy excitement as we walked over together, the boys shoving each other every few steps, not knowing how to contain their energy.
The dance began at 8 p.m., and we were there on time. We quickly realized how stupid this was, as no one was there except us. (I know, I know. Letting them show up on time is on me. I failed them here.) So we did what anyone would do in this situation. We waited outside like loitering criminals. Someone made a ball out of a crumpled up piece of paper and we played a rudimentary form of basketball. Then the sun started going down, and mercifully some other people showed up. They waited outside, too. No one wanted to be the first one in. I’d say this was a reflection of high school immaturity, but it’s really no different than any bar scene I’ve been a part of as an adult.
Finally, some sort of tipping point occurred and the kids went inside. In case it wasn’t obvious from the little second person intro thing you read at the beginning, I assumed the role of Type 3 in my chaperone-ship. I went inside a couple times, but the combination of heat, embarrassment, and Pitbull at 83 decibels repeatedly drove me back to my foyer. (I was not ready to dame más gasolina, apparently.) So there I sat, in the entranceway with the “indoor kids” talking Marvel cards and poetry, listening to the thumping bass through the walls.
I did make a couple forays inside. The gym where the dance was held had an elevated platform near the entrance before you descended the stairs down to the main floor, and that platform provided a nice perch to take in a bird’s eye view of the whole situation.
What I saw was like a scene out of Animal Planet. The kids moved in same-sex packs, for the most part, and occasionally two of these packs would sort of merge into each other and something resembling dancing would take place. A couple would pair off here and there, and either start grinding or do the awkward “hold hands and shimmy” dance routine. In every group there was one or two smaller guys, who would break out goofy dance moves (The Sprinkler and The Shopping Cart are still the go-tos, for those of you curious) and the non-partnered up girls would laugh at them. Inevitably a jokester boy would push his classmate into a girl, and the pushed boy would turn around and chase the jokester while the girl blushed and looked at her friends and giggled.
Occasionally, and this is just in a few instances, one couple would really start grinding, I mean really going at it, and I’d get embarrassed and look away and then another faculty member would step in and break it up. I had no interest in breaking anything up. Though I think I’m an OK teacher, I am by no means what one would call an authority figure. At one point I thought I smelled marijuana but that might have been my imagination.
After five minutes of standing on my perch, I’d nod to the nearest faculty member and step back out, resuming my post outside with the quiet kids. I think we were both lucky to have each other, in that we both gave the other an excuse to be outside. I didn’t look like a terrible faculty member because it was clear I was talking to students, chaperoning them in some way. The kids didn’t look like total dweebs because they could always say, “Ugh Mr. Scott kept me out there talking about Frank O’Hara FOREVER.” Mutualism at its finest, if I remember my biology.
The one dark moment of the night came toward the end, when I saw a boy and girl leave hand in hand from the dance together. I didn’t really care that they were going to hook up in the bushes or whatever. (I’d already let several couples wander off in the night. Sorry parents!) What I cared about was that I knew the boy. He was the “boyfriend” of one of my baker’s dozen Lit students. He dropped her off every day at class, and the other girls would tease her about him in the jealous way that 15-year-old girls tease their friends about their boyfriends. He seemed like an OK guy. The problem was the girl he was leaving with wasn’t the girl in my class. It was another girl, a girl I didn’t know, who was wearing a too-short skirt and eye makeup that I think was supposed to look smoky but made her look haunted.
I stood up to say something, and then didn’t. What could I say? “Hey, you. Stop walking somewhere with a girl that I don’t think is your girlfriend!” He was just walking. I couldn’t do anything. I wanted to punch his little teeth in. But I couldn’t.
So I sat back down. I talked for a little bit with the Marvel fan from my floor, and we discussed keeping in touch via email about things. I promised him I’d write his college rec. (He got into an Ivy, I found out later, without my help.)
Then, the girl from my class, the one with the wandering boyfriend, walked out. She was crying. Her friend had her arm around her. I stood up and asked if she was OK, and she said “No” and walked away. I sat back down.
Soon enough the dance ended. The kids filtered out, sweaty and smiling. I went in to help clean up. One of the other faculty members, sweaty himself from standing inside the packed gymnasium all night, wiped his brow and smiled at me.
“How was it in here?” I asked.
“Fine, fine,” he said. “Tried to keep them under control.”
“It’s like no matter what you do, they’re going to find a way, you know? You can only protect them so much. But they’ll find a way.”
I grabbed a broom, started sweeping up the confetti and paper cups, and told him I knew exactly what he meant.