Many around the world have missed milestones during the pandemic: my 65th birthday will never come again, nor my daughter’s 21st, nor my father’s 90th. Aunts and nephews have died, children and friends have married, all without the social rituals that normally accompany these rites of passage.

For America’s teens, most of whom were schooled in isolation for more than a year, the social and emotional scars of missing milestones could be long lasting, say psychologists and sociologists. High school football games played to empty bleachers; cheerleaders with masks on; graduation ceremonies on Zoom. Teen life should not be like this. 

But the widespread cancellations last year of senior prom, one of the seminal public rituals marking the end of American childhood, may have been the unkindest cut. Some families did do-it-yourself proms, pushing aside the settee to make room in the living room to photograph sons and daughters all dressed up with nowhere to go but on a Zoom date.

So when America’s coronavirus crisis began to ease, many high schools were determined not to let another year pass without marking this cultural milestone. Some had “proms” without dancing or eating — normally the focus. At Hobart High School in northern Indiana, senior teacher Courtney Gill says dancing was only allowed within socially distanced squares marked on the floor, and attendees sat alone to eat in shifts in the school cafeteria, socially distanced even from their dates. Everywhere, masks were mostly mandatory, except for photos or while eating. High heels were banned at many outdoor proms, to protect the turf in sports stadiums.

“The compromised prom is a loss upon a mountain of losses,” says Lisa Damour, clinical psychologist and expert on teen mental health. “It’s just one more thing that didn’t go their way.” 

But many who attended tell a different story. “I prefer something like this, I don’t even like dancing, I just like to dress up,” says Janessa Tyler, 18, graduating senior at Hansberry College Prep, part of the Noble Network of public charter schools in Chicago. She was one of 1,650 students who attended “prom” at Soldier Field football stadium, where students had 45 to 75 minutes to “promenade” around the stadium, doffing their masks for photographs. The absence of cheek to cheek dancing may have mattered less to a crowd which, as at most pre-pandemic proms, included many same or mixed-sex groups, with friends as well as dating couples.

“The only problem with the mask was that it smeared the make-up, but it wasn’t that bad,” Tyler tells me, adding that she and her date, Hansberry prom king Darius Walton, 18, wore matching burgundy masks chosen to complement her mermaid dress and his tuxedo. Attendees could have worn jeans but almost everyone came in formal wear, according to a spokeswoman — and they obeyed pandemic restrictions without a murmur. 

Families had a big role in the festivities too: Tyler and Walton were feted at a ritual “prom send-off” party, a tradition in the African American community of Chicago’s south side. Aja Reynolds, an expert on urban education and critical race studies at Detroit’s Wayne State University, says such pre-prom parties mark priceless “moments of collective memory” for the whole community. 

Amy Best, sociologist and author of Prom Night: Youth, Schools and Popular Culture, says prom is popular across race and income boundaries. “It’s a public display announcing to your community that you are somebody, that you matter. The pandemic really did disrupt that. Prom is not just an event for kids, it’s a broader culture event that we all commemorate,” she says. 

Tyler says it was definitely good for her mental health to see and be seen at Soldier Field. But she thinks lockdown had its gifts too: “I think the pandemic taught me patience and self-care, and that I don’t need to be busy all the time to feel satisfied. It’s OK to pause and work on yourself.” She’s hoping that life after Covid-19 preserves such pandemic blessings — though it’s a fair bet that next year proms will ditch the masks and distanced dancing.

The writer is an FT contributing columnist



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