Transcript

186:

Prom
Transcript

Originally aired 06.08.2001

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Full audio: http://tal.fm/186

Prologue.

Ira Glass

It was junior prom. David's date had ditched him and he wasn't doing so great. As he walked to get some cigarettes, he explained to me that the prom was the culmination of a three-year campaign on his part to get in with the cool crowd-- a mostly white crowd. It began when he arrived at Lincoln Park High School.

David

See, there's this story between here right? Since I was a freshman-- when I first came to Lincoln Park, I was a total nerd-- geeko, right? So of course, I see all these glamorous, beautiful girls. And I'm like, damn, I wish I could-- I would only dream of having them, right? Or just even take them out on a date, not even doing anything physical with them, right?

First Junior Prom at Lincoln Park-- the most gorgeous girl in school, I ask her to prom. She says yes. So well, goddamn.

You know, because I changed a lot since sophomore year. I got into this crowd and stuff. And I changed my speech, my dress, and all that stuff. I'm still the same person. I'm just-- this is the popular crowd. I'm just popular now.

So I end up going, right? And I know she has a history of being, like, incredibly moody. She's so gorgeous, take her anyway. Because I mean, if I go with her this year and she's so gorgeous, then all these other girls are going to say, damn, I have to go with him now. If he's good enough for her, he's definitely good enough for me.

I'm like, fine. This is going to boost my rep a little bit. And I'll tell you this-- I wanted something physical. I wanted to just fool around with her, meaning kiss her, feel her up or whatever. Even more, go all the way or whatever.

But I wasn't counting on that. I was here to have fun, and that'd be, like, a nice feature to it, that'd be a bonus, you know. But I wasn't pushing it or anything. Sure enough, her and her alleged best friend get into a fight. And here I am, alone with my rum and Coke.

Ira Glass

The prom. We don't make kids go into the army in this country. We don't make them go to college. We don't make them get married.

But if they're still in school when they're 18, they collide with the impenetrable fact that is the prom. If they go to school with a junior prom, they get it twice. And then they have to take a stand-- go, not go, have some kind of experience, use it to try to climb to a new group of friends, use it to try to get the girl, just try to get through it. The stakes are weirdly high for a one-night thing. Good luck.

As we get older, I think a lot of people tend to roll their eyes at the idea of prom. Because years later, there's something about it that just feels embarrassing, especially if you went. The clothes and the corsage, the corny music, just the whole thing.

I'll speak for myself. It's embarrassing to think how thrilled I was to go out that night, how the whole thing seemed fraught with possibility to me, and to a lot of us. And so today-- we're in the midst of prom season right now-- we bring you four stories of the prom. Let us understand it as adults.

Act One of our program today, Tornado Prom. What happens when a natural disaster strikes the same night as the unnatural disaster that is the prom. Act Two, Dave the Last Dance for Me, Again. Francine Pascal, the nominal author of 700 books for teenagers, including the Sweet Valley High books, explains why teen stories always have to end at the prom.

Act Three, Only Two Things are Certain In Life-- Death and Tuxes. In this act, you're going to experience, over the radio, a complete, typical prom. And oh, just look at the time. That only gives you half an hour to find a date.

Act Four, Only One Thing Missing. Is the epicenter of prom genius-- is the place where the prom future is being born-- the town of Racine, Wisconsin? They have added one ingredient to the prom that takes it to a whole new level of intensity-- one magic ingredient. Find out what it is.

Stay with us. From WBEZ Chicago, it's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass.

Act One. Tornado Prom.

Ira Glass

Act One, Tornado Prom. So in Hoisington, Kansas, a few years back, a tornado hit on prom night. Hoisington's a small town of about 3,000. Nobody at the prom was hurt. In fact, nobody at the prom even knew what happened.

But during the prom, over a third of the town was destroyed. One older man was dead. And the seniors were left to figure out what to think of the whole thing. Susan Burton tells the story.

Susan Burton

On Friday nights, the teenagers in Hoisington drag Main street, or they go to a party at someone's house, and the boys shoot baskets in the driveway and the girls jump on the trampoline. Sometimes the parties are out in the country at ponds. It's hicks in the sticks, they tell me.

Since it's Kansas, there's weird weather. High winds that make the power flicker on and off. They get a lot of tornado warnings, but they never thought one would actually touch down here. Hoisington just seemed too boring to be visited by a natural disaster.

Boy 1

It's just like nothing happens in Hoisington. Everyone says, always, oh, there ain't nothing to do in Hoisington. Nothing happens here. So just like, why would a tornado come here?

Susan Burton

Prom actually feels grand in Hoisington. The day of the dance, the girls drive down to Great Bend and get their hair done at Main Attractions. They all wear long gowns. They shop for them in a store in Wichita that won't sell the dress you buy to anyone else in your town. The dresses are elaborate, and like all prom finery, extremely difficult to explain.

Girl 1

It's like, black and it's fitted. But when you look at it from other directions, it's silver and royal blue.

Girl 2

Purple. It was shiny. There's, like, two straps that go in the back and they cross. I don't know. It's hard to explain.

Girl 1

Like, people would ask me what it looked like and it was so hard to explain to them because it's just so unique.

Sean

All very long, tight. Not really any of them didn't have a tight dress or, like, long. They were just, like, just one sheet, I guess. Really don't know about dresses, but there was just, like, one cloth.

Boy 1

I don't know. I think prom's more the female-- you know, it's her night. Most ladies are like-- want prom to be everything, you know. I think they wanted it to be a night they'll never forget. And some of them got it.

Girl 1

I mean, I went through lots of prom magazines, just looking at themes and stuff. And we had the whole junior class vote on which one they wanted. And they came up to be "Lost in the Moment."

It's kind of ironic. We really were lost. What was happening? We didn't know what was going on. And I mean, and after it-- we were just lost.

Susan Burton

What happens when a prom meets a tornado? When two events that often end in disaster collide? The day that both the prom and the tornado came to Hoisington-- everyone tells me with ominous foreshadowing-- started out sunny, but looked stormy by dinner. It was sprinkling by the time everyone parked their trucks outside the Knights of Columbus Hall on Main Street. They ducked and ran inside to prom.

Chaperone

In the back row, standing on your tiptoes. OK, that's good, that's good. Back row on your tiptoes. Here we go!

Sean

It was just crowded with people taking pictures. I mean, it was like I was at a basketball game or something. Just like, ch-ch-ch-ch. Hurted my eyes after a little bit.

Susan Burton

This is Sean. He's a junior. He videotaped the prom, partly so he could show his mom what she missed. From here, he and his classmates tell the story.

Will

It took a minute before people, you know, finally started dancing and stuff.

Sean

There's Diane dancing. Like she knows somebody. There's Heather.

Girl 1

We got there late. We got there right at 8 o'clock, so as soon as we got there, the dance had already started. So we just started dancing. And we danced for like an hour or so, you know. Yeah, about an hour.

And then, the lights started flicking off and on. Like, it didn't flicker, it kind of went off and then it'd come back on, you know. And people just-- some people, like my friend Diane is scared of the dark, you know, so she's freaking out. But some people, it was just fun, you know. So normal blackout thing, you know?

Will

There was just a lot of people screaming and yelling, you know? And just acting like fools and stuff. I was, too. And I think yelled, at one time, hand me that beer, break out the keg, and stuff like that. And the lights went back on. Everybody just kind of looked around and went on their way, you know? It wasn't even anything big.

[PEOPLE SINGING TO MUSIC]

Girl 2

The door kept opening. And we could hear it was really-- we knew it was getting windy outside and someone had said that it had started to rain. And people would go out and look and it was, like, rain was just coming in horizontally. It was just blowing down the street. And we didn't think anything of it. It was just, oh, we have to go out in this later. Didn't think it was as bad as what it was.

[MUSIC - "SURVIVOR" BY DESTINY'S CHILD]

Girl 1

They were playing "I'm a Survivor" from Destiny's Child. And that was, like, the next to last song before the lights blacked out.

Girl 2

Who know, you know? I mean, who would have thought that that song would be playing one of the last times that a tornado-- right before it ripped through our town, you know?

Will

Lights went out the second time and everybody just kind of stood around and everything, waiting. We're like, hurry up, turn the lights back on, come on. This sucks. We're standing around at prom, you know?

Girl 2

DJs came out and they had a long stick and they were trying to get everyone to do a limbo, just to keep us entertained while the lights were out. Because they couldn't have any music or anything like that. So they had a line of limbo going through. And that was when our principal told us that we needed to go downstairs.

Principal Mike Nolton

Shortly after the lights went out, the door of the Knights of Columbus then, was basically sucked open.

Susan Burton

This is Mike Nolton, the principal of Hoisington High School.

Principal Mike Nolton

At that point, I walked over and you could feel the pane glass kind of vibrating a little bit. And it subsided a little bit. I stepped outside, and as I stepped outside, an ambulance was coming down Main Street with the PA saying, get in the basement.

Girl 3

KSN News. Here's a break. We've got bad weather outside. They're locking us in. We can't get out to get more beer and drugs. It's a Hoisington crowd. People are scared, the wind is blowing, and the rain is coming down hard. Everybody go into the basement and take shelter.

Boy 4

Take shelter now!

Girl 3

Get away from the windows, get your in your bathtub, pull a mattress over your head. Secure yourself. This is serious, folks. I'm out.

Boy 4

Tornado's coming!

Sean

I was taping it. She just came up and just started saying that stuff. And I talked to her afterwards. She had no idea there was a tornado. She feels bad for even saying that stuff. It was like, whoa, she was right on the money.

Girl 4

This is the best prom ever. Ever. The basement, right here.

Girl 5

Oh, my god. I can't see. There you are.

Sean

When I wasn't looking in the camera, it was, like, pitch black. With, like, two flash lights in the distance that you could, like, barely see.

Girl 5

Someone's smoking down here.

Girl 6

Are you serious?

Girl 5

I can smell it! Where is it at?

Girl 1

It was dark and we were having trouble seeing everybody. And Mr. Nolton said that we weren't allowed to go-- our principal-- said we weren't allowed to go upstairs until the cops came and told us that everything was OK.

And I asked him-- I was like, well are we down here because of a hail storm, thunder storm, tornado? What's going on? He was, like, well, right now, everything would be speculation.

Is it hail? Or is this tornadoes or what?

Principal Mike Nolton

Right now, it would be speculation on my part. All I know is there's been some damage to some homes.

Boy 5

Shut up!

Principal Mike Nolton

Quiet, please.

Boy 5

Shut up! Relax.

Principal Mike Nolton

We will keep you here until it's safe to turn you loose. And then we will make a decision on whether to reschedule the prom or what to do. Not a popular decision. I'm sorry.

I made the call that prom would be canceled. Two hours later, I looked back on that statement and thought, boy, that was a silly statement. I didn't even have to make that statement. There wasn't going to be a kid there that wanted to stay at prom. It just goes to show how little we knew and we were four blocks away from the storm.

Girl 1

And so that's when people that would have cell phones, they started getting on those. And a lot of rumors were flying through and people were saying-- I mean, it was like, OK, all of a sudden someone pops up and says, Zach, your house is gone. Or like, Jacob, your sister's house is gone. And then it was like, all of Fifth Street's gone, all of Sixth Street's gone.

I was just, like, don't jump to conclusions because you don't know what's true and what's a lie and what's a rumor. Because there was rumors flying everywhere. That the Dairy Queen was gone and everybody that was in it was dead. And I mean, that was where we were going to have breakfast at after-after-prom.

There's people crying because no one-- we can't leave, we don't know where families are at. We didn't know how to get a hold of anybody. I don't even know if I can explain the feeling.

I was just-- I was just-- it was just so scared. I was-- it was almost-- you couldn't really even talk. All I could do was cry. I just-- that's all I could do.

Girl 7

It's pretty sad. And I'm about ready to cry, so I'm going to turn out again.

Will

All of a sudden, everybody just started walking up stairs. And it was still dark. And I was looking for my coat because I had taken it off and set it on a chair. And me and this other guy, Luke Patton, we both had the same-looking boutonniere. So we were looking at it.

And he was like, that looks like mine. And his girlfriend was like, yeah, that's yours. I can tell by that one.

I was like, are you sure? He was like, I don't know how the can of chew got here, but you can have it. So I kept it and I was looking for it. And I couldn't find it, I couldn't find it.

And then I heard somebody yell my name and I thought, that's my brother. No, what would he be doing up here? And then he was like, Will, you got to go talk to mom. So I figured, oh, she's overreacting. She wants to talk to me, make sure I'm OK.

And I could kind of see her. There was a little bit of light coming from the doorway where you can make out somebody's figure and I could kind of tell it was my mom. So I walked up to her and she started crying, and my sister was sitting there crying. And I just kind of was like, oh, no.

The last time I heard her sound that worried and scared was when my dad died. That was the last I heard my mom sound that bad. I kind of sat there and I didn't believe it at first.

Because I was like, tornado? You know, what tornado? There was no tornado. We didn't know about any tornado.

I didn't think there was because I didn't see it. I was right here. You know, how could there be a tornado without us knowing?

Susan Burton

Will and his mom went outside. Everyone from prom was standing on the sidewalk. Main Street looked fine. None of the buildings seemed to have been touched.

The air felt nice and cool. At first, Will thought the cars were pockmarked, like from hail. But then he realized the storm had just covered them with little white flowers.

Will

No one actually came up and said, oh, it was a tornado. It was. It was like-- there's someone saying, like, him, come here, you, come here, you, come here. It was weird because you were, like, listening for your name, if it was coming up.

But it was like-- there was just that one row of street, like Sixth and Seventh. I mean, that's what-- like, all the kids they were naming off that lived on that street. It was like, wait a minute, you know? Did it hit up there?

[SIRENS]

Oh, there was so many fire trucks and so many cops. Ambulances. I mean, they were just going to that-- north. Just kept going north. They didn't turn or nothing, they just went north.

And then they kind of lit up the whole town when they went through . And then you look on the other side of town, it's totally dark. It was weird because it was pitch black, basically, down there. It was kind of like, if you drove north, you're going to fall into a black hole or something.

Boy 1

We drove around for a while and I couldn't believe what I saw. Houses that I used to know, you know? Like, the one house had like a big chunk ripped out of the top of it, like a T-Rex walked up and just took a bite out of the top of the roof and stuff. It was pretty amazing.

Elana

My cousin had a separate car from my aunt, so he took me as close as he could get me to my house. And then I just got out and I ran to my house. I was jumping over power lines and tree limbs and everything in my prom dress and flip-flops. But I got there.

Susan Burton

This is Elana. She lived on 6th Street, right where the tornado hit.

Elana

My mom, yeah, she cooked that supper that night. She had a crystal pitcher of iced tea sitting on our table. It was still fine.

After the tornado, it was still sitting right there on the exact spot on the table. It hadn't been touched at all. And the roof was completely off the kitchen. You could stand in our kitchen and look up, and you'd be looking up at the sky.

Susan Burton

That night, kids walked all over Hoisington with flashlights. All the places they could think to go-- the Dairy Queen, the bowling alley, the grocery store, the football field-- were gone. It wasn't just that something had finally happened in Hoisington. Hoisington had become an entirely different town.

Elana

Where we're in right now is ground zero. My house is in ground zero.

Susan Burton

I arrived in Hoisington about two weeks after the tornado and Elana took me on a tour.

Elana

Everything is normal on this side. You can't even tell anything ever happened.

Susan Burton

Whole sections of the town were still perfect. There were people on porches and shiny party balloons tied to mailboxes. Then we crossed over. A lot of the west side had already been bulldozed. Now it was just dirt and basements and house parts. Someone's front steps or a kitchen, cut away like a room in a dollhouse.

And of course, this is Kansas. The Main Street in town is a red brick road. Lots of people had spray painted their cars and houses and boarded up windows with references to The Wizard of Oz.

Elana

Everybody writes stuff about Dorothy and Toto on their houses. Like our house, we had all the windows boarded shut and we had all kinds of sayings on there. We had, like, "We're coming for you, Toto" and like, "Dear Dorothy, I miss you. If somebody finds me, please pack me and send me to Oklahoma. Love, Toto."

Susan Burton

To the kids in Hoisington, it started to seem like the tornado made choices. Why would it knock down a house, but not even break the glass on a framed photograph of bridesmaids in purple dresses?

Elana

All kinds of weird stuff that's happened. Like when they went in Adam's room, the only thing that they found left in the room was the movie "Twister." I don't know.

Some people found a prom glass in their cupboard and it was from 1963. And they didn't have any kids. They were an old couple. And they didn't have any kids that graduated that year and they have no idea where it came from. But they found in their cupboard.

Susan Burton

Some teenagers started to look for a logic in who was hit and who was spared. I'm told that the junior class got it the worst and that it's a known fact they've been jinxed since the fourth grade. Addie, who lost her house, and Brooke, who didn't, tell me that Addie has bad luck and Brooke has good luck, that they joke about this all the time. That even at the moment the tornado destroyed Hoisington, Brooke was winning a prize at prom. Will took the whole thing a lot harder.

Will

Seems like that we just can't get a break, that we just can't get lucky.

Susan Burton

Will's dad died several years ago-- had a heart attack on his birthday. And then, last fall, the house Will had lived in since he was little got too expensive for his mother and the family had to move out. The house was on the east side, and the tornado didn't touch it.

Will

Even still, when I drive by there, I look at the house and wonder what it would have been like if the tornado hit and we still lived at that house. And I wonder if I still lived there, would the tornado have come that way and hit us there? Because maybe it was hit because there was somebody that it was going after.

And if I did live in that other house, maybe I would have-- the tornado probably would have came out over on the east side. That it probably still would have came through and done something to the house is just the way I believe.

I think it was meant to teach me a lesson in a couple ways. Like, one way way, I always thought, oh, it'd be cool if we had a tornado in this town, have something exciting going on in. And then, now it's like, well, here, have a tornado and now how do you feel about it?

Susan Burton

Elana felt like she caused the storm, too.

Elana

Friday night before the tornado, me and Addie were driving to Claflin to hang out some friends. And I was like, you know what, Addie? I was like, I've never seen a tornado. I was like, I really want to see one sometime.

She was like, oh, Elana, they're really scary. She was like, I've seen a couple, but I've never actually been in one. I was like, I know, I was like, wouldn't that be crazy if it really did happen?

Then like, 24 hours-- almost exactly-- later, the next night, a tornado comes and takes out our houses. It was pretty freaky. I was like, oh, my gosh. I remember after the tornado when I got home and I was crying. I was hugging my mom and I was just like, I swear I made this happen. And my mom was like, no, honey, you didn't make it happen. But I mean, it was pretty scary saying, I've never seen one, I really want to see one, the night before it takes out my house.

Susan Burton

I asked Sean if he thinks the storm singled people out.

Sean

I don't think so, really, because if that was true, it'd have came straight to my house and would have found me at prom but it didn't. I don't know, I have, like, bad luck all the time. I mean, like two sisters-- the first was the littlest one. She said, oh, I'll go to prom with you and she dumps me. Her sister asked me to prom. Then she was like, well, I don't want to go with you. I want to go with someone else.

So I was like, I got rejected by sisters. So it was like-- [SIGH]. It should have found me and like sucked me up by myself, just to be like ha, ha, ha, you know? And then hit my car and then hit my room. Instead of just hit my whole house, just my room and my car. So I had scratched that bad luck idea with some people. It was just a twist of fate that that happened.

Girl 2

That was definitely the prom of all proms. I mean, it was a horrible, horrible experience to go through, but it was definitely a prom of all proms.

Girl 1

I mean, it's something that everybody's going to remember. Like, some people, they look back on prom and it's just a prom night. Everybody knows what prom happened-- they know what's going to happen at prom, they know what prom is. But now we can say what happened on prom night and it's really big event now.

Elana

I guess it's one that you'll never forget, really. I mean, you think of prom night, now you think of tornado. I mean, everybody's going to remember it for that.

Susan Burton

Usually, the story of prom is one of disappointment. You're in the bathroom crying during the slow dance, or you throw up at the hotel room party, or you go home feeling silly for having been so excited about something so meaningless. The teenagers in Hoisington got the kind of prom story everybody wants. They got a legendary prom, the night that actually did change their lives.

Elana

I mean, it's like, I went to prom my sophomore and junior years. And it was a dance. It was a prom. It was nice and it was fun to get all dressed up. But it was, like, a prom that taught a lesson. It wasn't just-- it became-- our cars and clothes weren't so important. And family and friends and it taught a big lesson about humanity, I think, to everybody there. Everybody had a new perspective of life walking out of that prom.

Sean

We were like, a whole different world just having fun, when actually outside, it's like, totally opposite. People are in their basements, stuff's falling down, houses are gone. People are actually losing stuff and we're in the prom, still dancing when the tornado hits.

And after it hits, we're still just free of everything, just still having a good time. It's like, totally different when you walk outside. You step out of the safe zone and you go into another world where reality hits.

Susan Burton

Prom doesn't usually chaperone you into the world so quickly. Suddenly, a lot of kids in Hoisington have to act like grown ups. Will's going to college in the fall, but he sometimes thinks it would be better to get a job on an oil rig, give the paychecks to his mother. A senior named Zach actually pulled his parents out of the rubble of their own home on prom night. But everyone's looking forward to rebuilding and they're all getting used to the idea that anything can happen, even in Hoisington.

Ira Glass

Susan Burton in New York. Since we first broadcast that story back in 2001, Will-- the teenager who talked about how doomed he felt, how his family couldn't get a break, whose father died and whose house was destroyed-- he died in July in a car accident, just a few months after prom and just weeks after our story was broadcast.

[MUSIC - "TORNADO ON THE DANCE FLOOR" BY GREG HILL, MATT SHUPE, AND JASON BITNER]

Coming up-- they've been juniors in high school since the year 1982. So when they say-- and this is a direct quote-- "We have been dreaming about prom night for years," they mean it. That's in a minute, from Chicago Public Radio, when our program continues.

It's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Each week on our program, of course, we choose some theme, bring you a variety of different kinds of stories on that theme. Today's program, at the very end of prom season, stories about the prom. We've arrived at Act Two of our program.

Act Two. Save The Last Dance For Me...again.

Ira Glass

Act Two, Save the Last Dance for Me, Again. So Pretty in Pink and Carrie and Back to the Future and the Cosby kids and Buffy and too many other movies and TV shows to name-- they all eventually end up at the prom. But why? Why the prom? Why is it so omnipresent?

Well, for answers, we turned to Francine Pascal, who has written or invented the plot lines for 700 books in the Sweet Valley High series, which, of course, is the adventures of Elizabeth and Jessica Wakefield, twins and, well, seemingly permanent high school juniors. She spoke to us from her home in France.

Francine Pascal

Well, I have to tell you that the prom is probably the quintessential glory of high school. It's the moment that comes closest to the romantic vision of life. I think it's repeated again only one other time, and that would be marriage. I mean, it's that important in the high school life, in the teenager life, in that pre-life before adult.

Ira Glass

That's interesting. So as in a traditional drama, where you'd want the characters to end up in marriage, if you're writing about teenagers, all you've got is the prom.

Francine Pascal

That's about it. That's right. And out of the 700 books, I probably-- prom is mentioned in at least 500 of them. But I would say it's probably a major goal in almost 30, 35.

Ira Glass

You mean 35, or so, books actually take place at the prom. There's an actual prom in them.

Francine Pascal

Yeah. There is a prom as the plot goal, or a very important part of the plot. I can give you just ideas of it. I think in the second book, I did a plot about who is going to be the king and queen of the prom. And there was rigging the election and it-- just to give you an idea.

Plots on getting a date for the prom, somebody who has no date for the prom, the wrong date for the prom, the wrong date that turns out right for the prom. And I know there was a plot about this poor girl-- her brother had to take her. I mean, that's permanent trauma.

And then there's the other thing where there's no money for the prom dress. And there's the one about you think he's going to ask you, but he asks someone else. And every-- I mean, when you're involved in as many plots as I am, they begin to fall into some categories. And there are things like the bet plot.

Ira Glass

The what plot?

Francine Pascal

The bet. Wager. Like a wager. Bet plot or the pledge plot, where the boy asks a girl on a bet to go to the prom. Or the pledge is he has to ask the least popular girl in the class to go to the prom and then she finds out. And then he really wants to go with her, but it's too late because she's furious and that takes a whole book to settle down.

Ira Glass

It seems like one of the common prom plots is that the prom forces a choice between potential dates. And often, it'll be the good looking, unattainable boy or girl is one possibility and the smart, funny best friend is the other possibility.

Francine Pascal

Exactly. Exactly. I've used that sort of thing. It's also perfect because, though these people are not going to be living for the rest of their lives-- they're not legally married or anything-- but they do have to make that first important choice of the person they are going to spend that momentous evening with. It's almost a mini marriage kind of choice.

Ira Glass

In book number 142 in the Sweet Valley series, a story called The Big Night, you have not one, not two, not three, but four characters who end up switching their dates at the prom. And one girl tries to kill her date.

Francine Pascal

Oh, that's a-- that must have been a thriller.

Ira Glass

Courtney tries to push Todd off of a boat railing into the water and Elizabeth is in a speedboat following. Yeah.

Francine Pascal

Yes. Right. Yes, well you know, that's just a variation on a theme. That's all. You have to do something slightly different with them when you're on 140.

Ira Glass

Listening to you talk about this, it seems like what the prom does and what it gives you, as a writer, is it gives you a natural arena where there can be a conflict over love and an outcome. And without the prom, you'd have to invent some situation which would feel like it has weight, whereas the prom just has the weight.

Francine Pascal

Exactly. Because the prom is-- it's a natural. It comes filled with all kinds of emotion. Just the mention of the prom. You don't have to create something and build it up and give it terrible importance. You don't have to do any of those things.

Ira Glass

Did you go to prom yourself?

Francine Pascal

I never went to my own prom. I was not interested, strangely enough. I didn't like high school very much at all. It's funny that I ended up writing so much about it.

Ira Glass

And what did you think of prom?

Francine Pascal

I really was not interested. I felt that I was too sophisticated and mature for that sort of stuff. And I just didn't-- I never really participated, beyond writing speeches for the political candidates and being on the newspaper. That's what I liked. But beyond that, I just didn't have an interest in it.

Ira Glass

You never cared to go to the prom and so you've now-- somehow fate has put you in a situation where you've had to revisit it over 35 times.

Francine Pascal

That's right. Yes, it's my punishment. But it's different because I don't have to show up there.

Ira Glass

The charming Francine Pascal, creator of Sweet Valley High.

[MUSIC - "YOU SAID YES" BY NATHANIEL RAYMOND AND THE IMPLICATIONS]

Act Three. Only Two Things Are Certain In Life: Death And Tuxes.

Ira Glass

Act three. "Death and Tuxes." So let's go to the prom, huh? You and me? Back in 1994, when I was a reporter for NPR'S All Things Considered, I actually covered the senior prom at Taft High School in Chicago. And we thought we would play this story now because, in contrast to the proms in Francine Pascal's books, this captures-- on tape-- what the prom usually is. Here is this very old recording.

All year long, the teachers see students who slouch and gossip, students who wear clothing that teachers don't understand, students who need prodding and discipline and constant surveillance. And then, on prom night, the students reappear, transformed as in a dream. And the teachers wonder around remarking to each other, can you believe how well behaved they are, how grown up they seem? Math teacher Jerry Pad has helped plan the prom for years.

Jerry Pad

Aren't they really great? They really are. They're having fun, we never have any trouble. They're just great kids. Oh, these are-- plus, these are the seniors that have made it. All the [BLEEP] are out.

Ira Glass

Carla Rivedinero's date, George Bork, hadn't bothered with a tux. He wore a black shirt, skinny black tie, black pants, no jacket. They were having fun except for one small hitch.

George

Can't dance, bro.

Carla

He won't dance with me because he can't dance.

George

It's not that I won't, it's like I can't.

Carla

He can't. Yeah.

Ira Glass

Maybe if they'd play some metal, he said, he could slam dance.

Girl 1

'94! Woo! '94! '94.

Ira Glass

This couple was having a different kind of prom.

Boy 1

We're going to Niagara Falls tomorrow morning. But tonight we're just going party. My girlfriend isn't telling me yet where we're going to go to the hotel.

Girl 2

I went to a special place and I got him a special hotel room somewhere and it's a surprise.

Ira Glass

What do your parents say about this?

Girl 2

Well, my mom gave me the mother-daughter sex talk, but it's a little too late for that. Kind of in one ear, out the other, but she was still very worried and she didn't want me to do this and she thought it was a waste of money. But you know.

Ira Glass

Your mother gave you a mother-daughter sex talk?

Girl 2

Yes. Yeah. Saying that something-- maybe he might-- because I'm leaving for college, OK? And since we've been together this long, it's going to be very dramatic between us two to leave each other. So she's like, aw, he's going to bust the moves on you. He's going to try to do sex acts to try to keep you here. But it's--

Boy 1

Too late for that.

Ira Glass

On the dance floor, there was a certain amount of copping feels and kissing, but the sexual tension at the prom hit a kind of surreal zenith when the DJ told the boys to bring chairs down to the dance floor. Girls were seated in the chairs. And the garter ceremony began.

Dj

We going to count down from 10.

Ira Glass

Over 100 teenage girls presented bare legs with garters.

Dj

All men have to put your hands behind your back.

Ira Glass

Meaning grab the garter with your teeth.

Dj

All right, going to count backwards from 10. 10, nine--

Ira Glass

This is the kind of activity that separates the just-friends prom dates from the real dates, and dozens of just-friends stood around the edges of the hall in various states of discomfort.

Dj

--four, three, two, one.

Ira Glass

100 kneeling teenage boys bring their faces up against the slightly sweaty thighs of their dates, grip multi-colored garters with their teeth, and drag them off the leg. It's a shocking and amazing sight, but when I asked teachers about it later, they all say, where have you been? They've done this for years.

Dj

Let's see them, fellas. Sling them in the air.

Ira Glass

At homecoming, apparently, things get even more explicit.

Dj

Woo! All right. OK, let's move the chairs and we'll have a slow dance.

Ira Glass

As the evening wore on, George and Carla-- the couple that didn't dance-- did go out for a couple of slow numbers.

Dj

Why don't we get everyone to the floor?

Ira Glass

Later, when it was time to leave, they picked up their prom favors and took some balloons from the centerpieces, and joined another couple-- Mark and Charlotte-- in Mark's father's Ford Tempo. They searched for a radio station.

Charlotte

Put it on CKG!

Mark

Jeez, it's nothing but a whole bunch of hippie rock. No, man. It's a bunch of hippie rock.

Charlotte

I like it. All right.

[SINGING]

Ira Glass

Everybody pitched in $1.00 for gas. Carla waved to people in other cars and inhaled the helium from her prom balloons.

Charlotte

(HELIUM-INFLECTED VOICE) Pudgy bunny, pudgy bunny.

Ira Glass

They argued about directions, discussed who Winona Ryder is going out with these days, and finally, after nearly an hour, we ended up at a party. A pretty lively party, but mostly we stood around outside.

Charlotte

Where's my liquor?

Matt

In the store!

Charlotte

Matt, where's my liquor?

Ira Glass

Charlotte repeated this about, oh, 20 times. Nobody else seemed too interested in getting drunk. But finally, someone organized a liquor run.

Charlotte

Are they going to sell to you?

Boy 2

They'll sell to me. If they don't sell to me, they'll sell to somebody else. What do you want?

Charlotte

Kiwi Lime Mad Dog, baby.

Boy 2

Mad Dog, what kind?

Charlotte

Kiwi lime.

Boy 2

Kiwi lime?

Charlotte

Wait! He needs something.

Boy 3

Give me that five-pack. Here, I'll give you $10.

Ira Glass

One thing you forget when you're not a teenager is how much time teenagers spend just standing around waiting. Waiting to get organized, waiting for everyone to show up, waiting for the person buying liquor to return. Percentage wise, this was the largest part of the evening. Invariably, during this time, someone starts to get on someone else's nerves. For Charlotte and George, the feeling was mutual.

George

Da-da-da-da-da. She always yaps, man. She never shuts up. She just keeps on talking and talking. I want her to just shut up.

And it's the tone of voice she uses, too. Like, the whiny-- eeehhhh!-- tone of voice. I don't want to hear it. I had to put up with her for-- when she first started going to Taft, man. And I hated it then and I hate it now. It's something that's bringing me down.

Carla

Going, man. We're going.

Charlotte

You're coming with us?

Ira Glass

Around 1:30, a decision was made to go to the beach-- one of Chicago's downtown Lake Michigan beaches. And after much debate, and four attempts to get a dozen people into cars, we finally drove to Belmont Harbor and walked out to the big rocks on the water.

Everyone stared at the lake. The city lights made the clouds glow orange. In the distance, you could see some fog and the lights of the water pumping rigs.

George

Those pumping stations, man. How do you like to work out there? You get the work out there for three days-- three-day shifts, 24 hours? You're out there. And they feed you. You work and you get paid and you just hang around there. And it's like a real cool city job that you get paid through the ass for.

Carla

It'd be so scary to be on a boat. It's so dark.

George

Unless I'm really smashed, I really feel uneasy around open water.

Mark

Did you say you feel uneasy about what?

Carla

Water. Open water.

George

The lake, man.

Mark

Cool, man. It's space. It's free, man, it's empty. It's the best, man. It's the best you can go.

Ira Glass

Mark, then, launches into a fairly dire speech which, coming from him, is surprising. He's college-bound, a good student, on the football team. Usually easygoing and self-confident.

Mark

I'm serious, man, there is no [BLEEP] freedom is this goddamn place, plan. There's always some cop or somebody asking what you're doing there. Because there's always somebody who owns the place.

They're always going to come to you and ask you. Especially when you're underage. Then they're going to really get on your back, giving you lectures about what you're not supposed to do and what you're supposed to do.

Ira Glass

Blair and Charlotte go out for cigarettes. Carla takes her shoes off. We talk about this and that. And then, we look behind us and see the blue lights through the trees.

George

Cops.

Mark

Cops, we're going to split.

Ira Glass

No evening like this can be complete without a run in with the police. They're perhaps 100 yards away in the parking lot in their squad car.

George

What, they getting out? Already getting out?

Ira Glass

The police hover there a few minutes, put a ticket on one kid's car, and drive off. No big deal. Next stop, naturally, is an all-night restaurant. By the time we get big, plastic Denny's menus in our hands, it's 4:00 in the morning.

Waiter

You ready to order?

Charlotte

I want salad.

Waiter

What can I get for you?

Mark

You know what I'm going to have? I'm going to have the Flanagan Slam.

Ira Glass

They gossiped. They floated pleasantly from topic to topic. Fate had handed them a prom, and they knew they were supposed to stay out all night. And they kept wandering from place to place, waiting for something to happen. Nothing much did. But nothing bad did, either.

George

It's starting to get light outside.

Carla

You don't got to get going soon. I'm going to sleep all day.

George

I can't sleep all day.

Ira Glass

Back in the car, George said that the best moment of the prom was when he got to slow dance with Carla. Mark said it was when he missed getting a ticket from those cops. Charlotte said it was when she looked around at all the people at the prom and realized that she no longer had to return to Taft High School.

[SINGING]

George

All right. I don't know this song as good as I thought I did. All right.

Act Four. Only One Thing Missing.

Ira Glass

Act Four. "Only One Thing Missing." So every year for the past 60 years, on the third weekend in May, all the high schools in Racine, Wisconsin, hold their proms. On that same night, after all the proms have ended, the kids from all seven schools drive a parade route through town in convertibles, and limos, and antique cars, ice cream trucks, and semis, to the post-prom party, which in Racine, is actually bigger than the actual prom itself. Hosted by the local Rotary Club, it goes from 8:30 at night until 3:00 the next morning.

People set up lawn chairs to watch this procession of cars, this parade. It is a huge, huge deal. And then, 27 years ago, it got even bigger. Wendy Dorr tells what happened.

Wendy Dorr

The good people of Racine loved their prom and they were always looking for ways to make it better. And so, they added to it a force even more powerful than the prom itself. They added live television coverage.

Announcer

Last year, 60,000 eyes were watching. A rite of passage. Seven schools. One great location. One night only.

It's prom. Prom, live, Saturday, May 10, 9:30 PM. What will you be wearing?

Craig Haskins

It's a really, really incredible atmosphere in there, with an $8,000 laser show, $5,000 to $10,000 worth of balloons and flowers.

Wendy Dorr

Craig Haskins has been running the Rotary Club's post-prom for the past couple of years. He was voted into the job by his fellow Rotarians, simply because he is 27 years old and by far the youngest Rotarian in Racine. And he looks young. On prom night, he has to wear a special badge so the high school kids know not to ask him to dance.

Craig Haskins

There are screaming people, the red carpet, television crews, two talented-- the host and hostess that interview you when you walk through the door, just like Joan Crawford. That's her name, right?

Wendy Dorr

Joan Rivers.

Craig Haskins

Joan Rivers. Just like Joan Rivers when you walk through-- what are you wearing? That's a beautiful tux or that's a nice dress.

Announcer 2

Good evening, everyone, and welcome to Time Warner Cable's coverage of the 2001 Rotary Post-Prom Parade, live from Festival Hall on Racine's lakefront. My name is Deb Silverton--

Zach Fishbain

When I was walking down the red carpet, I felt like I was-- you feel like a celebrity.

Wendy Dorr

Zach Fishbain was a senior at Horlick High this year.

Zach Fishbain

And there's fans-- people of all ages. There's bleachers-- packed bleachers-- hundreds of people around the arrival area and people screaming your name, taking pictures, holding their hands out. It feels like the paparazzis are like following me around with television cameras in your face.

Announcer 2

What did you do before you got here?

Girl 1

Oh, we went out and to the Country Club and ate with the rest of Walden.

Zach Fishbain

The whole school did.

Announcer 2

OK. So you all ate together and then came down here?

Girl 1

Yeah.

Announcer 2

Oh.

Zach Fishbain

There's people on the left of the carpet interviewing and watching all these limousines and friends coming and everyone feels like a celebrity and everyone sees everyone else as a celebrity. Everybody is everybody's best friend at post-prom.

You walk in and you see the strobe lights flashing and the celebrity feeling is even multiplied when you get there. And that feeling doesn't go away until-- well, I still have it, three weeks later. And I'm still feeling like a celebrity watching it all again on television.

So as long as you keep watching it, and everyone knows how big of a deal it is, it really isn't downplayed. Once you lose that feeling, you think about prom, start talking about it again, and people want to hear about it. People who didn't go and have been watching it have so many questions for you.

Did you do this? Did you see this person? What kind of music did they play? You are the center of attention when prom is the topic. So you maintain that celebrity feeling.

Wendy Dorr

Here's what it looks like to the home viewer. Because this is low-budget, local cable programming, it's mostly just one camera shot. Couples enter the Festival Hall passing, two-by-two, in front of the camera, woo-hooing and hi-momming straight into the camera, one after the next. And this goes on for four hours.

In Zach's house, this footage has become a kind of video wallpaper. While I was there interviewing him, a copy of the cable broadcast played the whole time in the living room. Sometimes a family member would drop out of the conversation to stare at it for a while. Now and then, Zach's mom, Susan, would call our attention to the screen.

Susan

Here he comes. Look how handsome. We have been so excited with it. We've watched it numerous times. It's great.

I mean, we play it back all the time. It's right-- we have two copies of it. It's in two TVs. And every time you watch it, you see somebody different. And it's so much fun when you run into the parents and the kids in the city, to say your pink dress and your matching tux was just great. And it's great.

Craig Haskins

If you asked the local television studios what's the biggest--

Wendy Dorr

Again, Craig Haskins.

Craig Haskins

--the Oscars, Super Bowl, or prom, they would, hands down, say prom. Because it's the highest-rated anything in town and that's a good way to judge people's interest as to what they're watching on TV.

Wendy Dorr

Proms everywhere are all about hype. And so it's no surprise that once you have a prom that's a TV show, that the ratings would be hyped, too. The cable company's commercial says that 60,000 eyes were watching the program. But by that, they actually mean 30,000 viewers-- two eyes per viewer. And really, even that number is just a guess.

For sure, one person who was not watching the program was Kirsten Hipsky. I spoke with her at her job at Desmond's Formal Wear, a tuxedo rental store at the Regency Mall. It is also safe to say that Kirsten was the only person in the mall that night who was reading Plato's Phaedrus for fun.

Kirsten Hipsky

I'm re-reading it. It's the last thing we read in school and it was really wonderful and I wanted to keep reading it. And also, I can practice my Greek.

Wendy Dorr

You didn't go to prom.

Kirsten Hipsky

No, no, I didn't. Prom is a beautiful illusion. People here indulge in the thought that maybe they're not in the place that they are. Racine is not a glamorous place and I mean, I know, I'm part of it.

Wendy Dorr

If you're someone who hates the prom, there's no better way to refuel your hatred than by working at a tux shop. Kirsten says everyone at the store despises the prom. The worst part being when the kids bring their sweaty suits back.

Kirsten Hipsky

Sometimes they'll come out stuffed into a little grocery bag tied really tight. And you have to disinfect the whole thing and pick it up very lightly. The boss here got fungus underneath her fingernails one time from dealing with someone's socks.

Wendy Dorr

Do you get suits with grass stains?

Kirsten Hipsky

Oh, yeah. Grass, puke, mud.

For people that say that prom is there for people to feel special for once in their lives, I don't know about that. I mean, find me one high school senior who really needs an ego boost. It's the time to be cocky and prideful.

And I think it's kind of indulgent of that and if they say that they feel like a celebrity, it doesn't surprise me at all. Because they do get treated like celebrities, even though their personality might be less than beautiful. And I'm certainly glad I didn't take part in it.

Wendy Dorr

To truly enjoy the Racine prom, and maybe to enjoy any prom, you have to be the sort of person who enjoys the hype leading up to it. Zach certainly did, for basically his whole life.

Zach Fishbain

I have been watching prom on television every spring, every May. And it's only natural-- middle schoolers, elementary school, grade school, high school, all ages are watching this. So every year, we watch it. And as a kid, I thought I was going to come in a helicopter or with a yellow tuxedo. Actually, this year, there was a kid in a yellow tuxedo. But no helicopters, unfortunately.

Watching it on TV-- I never realized how glorious this festivity really was until I actually was a part of it. I mean, it seems great. You look so forward to it.

And it was even better when I got there because it was the real thing. I was experiencing it. The realization and the fact that I knew I was actually there and no longer looking forward to it made it that much better.

Wendy Dorr

Prom, after all, is just a dance, plus a whole lot of hype. Racine understands this so well that it's possible they've created the greatest prom in the world. They've hyped it to the point that when I asked a bunch of junior high school girls if they were looking forward to the prom, all of them looked at me as if I just asked them if they were, in fact, of the human species. Because, they explained, by the time they reach senior year, who knows how big it could get.

Ira Glass

Wendy Dorr. She's a producer at Gimlet Media. Special thanks to OVO Incorporated, which is an arts collective in New York. It's from them that we heard about the prom in Racine. They made a film about it, called World's Best Prom. They were very helpful to us. For information about them and their films, visit the website www.worldsbestprom.com.

Well, our program was produced today by Starlee Kine and myself, with Alex Blumberg, Wendy Dorr, Jonathan Goldstein. Our senior producer for this show was Julie Snyder. Production help from Ira Smith. Our technical director is Matt Tierney. Seth Lind is our operations director. Emily Condon's our production manager. Elise Bergerson's our business operations manager. Kimberly Henderson is our office coordinator.

[ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS]

Our website, thisamericanlife.org. "This American Life" is delivered to public radio stations by PRX, the Public Radio Exchange. Thanks, as always, to our program's co-founder, Mr. Torey Malatia, who describes this job this way--

George

You work and you get paid and you just hang around there. It's like a real cool city job that you get paid through the ass for.

Ira Glass

I'm Ira Glass. Back next week with more stories of This American Life.