- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 8, 2001

High school senior Kate Gardiner says she definitely is not your typical teen-ager.

"Most of them have one goal, and that is to be a teen-ager and have fun," she explains, squinting into the sun from a curbside table at an Arlington Starbucks. "Yes, I do that, too, but it is not my main goal in life."

However, there is one way in which Kate, 18, is very much like her peers: She plans to attend her prom this spring.

Millions of high school students will make the prom a major stop on their party circuits this year, says Amy L. Best, an assistant sociology professor at California´s San Jose State University. Most, she says, also invest in the idea that the prom is a night to remember.

Many students look to prom night as one last opportunity to have fun with their friends. Others see it as an evening of personal definition highlighting comparisons and values.

While teens dream, plan, save and spend with an eye toward that special night, many of their parents view the entire event with apprehension perhaps with good reason.

"Many kids see the prom as either a rite of passage or rejecting the influence of parents over them," says Ms. Best, author of "Prom Night: Youth, Schools and Popular Culture." The thirtysomething academic has visited high schools and attended proms across the country in the name of research, talking with teen-agers, educators and parents.

"Adults take such a protectionist stance toward teen-agers and don´t recognize that to be a teen-ager means something different now than it did in, say, the 1950s," she says. "The prom is constantly being focused on through adults´ lenses."

A night to remember

The high school prom first emerged during the early 20th century, Ms. Best writes in "Prom Night."

"The prom was a democratized version of the debutante ball, an event historically attended by only the leisure class. afforded anyone attending high school the opportunity to feel as though they, too, were 'coming out,´ that they could transcend the boundaries of class."

Although the popularity of the prom has waxed and waned over the years, Ms. Best says, the market really caught fire during the 1980s, turning the prom into a bona-fide consumer event.

"Now it is a multimillion-dollar industry for which kids regularly spend $500 to $1,000, she says.

"It´s all about transforming yourself and being someone you aren´t in school," she explains. "Be Cinderella for the night. Dare to stand out. Be the babe of the ball."

The youth market is a golden opportunity for manufacturers, retailers and the entertainment industry, says Brandon Paine, vice president and co-founder of Convergence Mediagroup, a youth-focused brand-development company based in San Francisco. Mr. Paine and his colleagues provide marketing strategy, research and creative services to clients including Pepsi, Taco Bell and Levi´s.

"The average teen-ager spends $60 to $80 a week," Mr. Paine says. "They don´t spend it on a ton of stuff but they do spend it on consumer products like food and entertainment such as music and video games. The other big piece is apparel."

Mr. Paine says it is worth pointing out that retail companies know the costs associated with the prom aren´t costs young people are going to duck.

"Everyone knows they´ve got these young people," he says. "Parents should know there are a lot of companies out there chasing their kids´ dollars."

Indeed, many prom-related Web sites list cost estimates for students planning on going to the prom. In www.prom-night.com, a site created by a California high school assistant principal and his wife, the tabulation includes minimum ticket prices of $20 per couple for school-gym events all the way up to $90 to $150 per couple for dances featuring dinner; $75 to $200 for an evening gown; $50 to $100 for tuxedo rental; $15 to $50 for boutonnieres or corsages; and $35 to $150 for professional photography at the event. Extras may include another $400 or more for a limousine, hairstyling at $20 to $50 and makeup.

Breaking it down

Kate, a student at H-B Woodlawn, an alternative public school in Arlington, says she anticipates shelling out a pretty penny to attend her prom. The event, which she was instrumental in planning, will be held at the Belle Haven Country Club south of Alexandria.

A disc jockey will entertain the 200 to 250 guests, including staff and faculty, and tickets are a bargain at $22 per couple. (Herndon High School students, on the other hand, will pay $80 per couple this year.) Kate says she will ask a male friend to go as her date. She will buy his ticket.

She plans to purchase a prom dress with help from her parents and thinks she may spend $100 to $200.

"In the past when I´ve had to buy a formal dress, I´ve either bought it or split the cost with my parents," she says. "I know basically what I can and cannot pay, both on my and my parents´ end."

Kate says she has earned money baby-sitting and doing other jobs since she was 10.

"When I started thinking about going to the prom, it was kind of like September, so I´ve been saving pretty much since then," she says.

While most of her friends work behind the counters of bakery shops and delis, Kate gets a steady paycheck for taking care of two little boys near her neighborhood.

"I definitely don´t think are trying to say that if you don´t go, you are a big loser," she says. "But if you do go, you look good and you have the memories and that extra notch on your belt that other people don´t have."

David Sauter, a junior at Washington-Lee High School in Arlington, says the prom doesn´t carry a lot of meaning for him this year, "but it probably will next year when I´m a senior." The 17-year-old, who sums up his life as "school, homework, football, work, my friends and girls that´s pretty much it," will attend his school´s event this year with a senior friend.

Like Kate, David plans to pay part of his expenses for his big night out himself with earnings from his job as a clerk at a local Mail Boxes Etc. He works every day after school and on both weekend days when it is not football season.

David says he also plans to hit up his parents for some cash. "They´ll probably give me some, but I´ll be lucky to get $100 out of them," he says with a shrug.

That´s about right, says David´s mom, Catherine Sauter, who doubles as a social-studies teacher at her son´s high school.

"I don´t expect to chip in much one, because he´s a junior. We´re not unwilling to help, but we need to make an assessment," she says. "Once he shows me the budget, we can start negotiating. There needs to be some accountability for how the money is being spent. There is a difference between extravagance and having a nice evening."

For one, Mrs. Sauter suggests that her son drive his own car an old Buick instead of renting a stretch limousine, as is common practice for many prom-goers.

David sees it a bit differently.

"All the guys will probably pool our money together for a limo," he explains one evening after work, taking a break before starting his homework. Then there is dinner at a nice restaurant, and the tuxedo rental, which he says may set him back $100 or so. He usually gets his corsages for free because he knows someone who works at a flower shop.

All this, he says, for a night "I´ll probably remember if my kids ask me about it."

Sixteen-year-old Courtney Jordan of Bowie plans to make her school´s special night a special memory this year. A junior at Riverdale Baptist School in Upper Marlboro, Courtney will attend her school´s big event, the Junior-Senior Banquet.

Planned annually in lieu of the prom, the banquet will be held at Hogate´s restaurant in the District. One element it will not feature is dancing.

"Our school is a Christian school," she explains. Parents and teachers "don´t want us to get out of control."

Instead, her school´s event will feature a sit-down dinner, a student talent show and a parody performance by some students. As the class president, Courtney has been very involved in the planning, which began last September.

"I want everyone to have a good time even though it´s not a regular American high school prom," she says. "I just want everyone to have fun."

Everyday fun for Courtney includes hanging out with her friends and talking to them on the phone ("too much," says her mother; "seems like two hours a night," says her father), listening to gospel singer Crystal Lewis and R&B artist Sade. She loves math and has wanted to be an obstetrician ever since she can remember.

Courtney joined her parents in determining a family budget for the event and deciding who would pay for what. Her share of the expenses comes from money she has received as gifts or has earned waitressing and baby-sitting.

Courtney will attend the prom with a date a classmate she has known since kindergarten. Her parents bought her dress, which cost a little more than $100. The teen bought her own shoes and plans to pay for her costume jewelry. Her parents will pay for her hairstyling; Courtney plans to purchase a pre-prom manicure and pedicure.

"We were going to get a limo, but I called around, and it was too much around $350 to $400," Courtney says. "My date offered to pay, but his parents said they´d take us for free, so I said OK, fine."

Her mother, Pamela Jordan, says she believes Courtney understands the meaning of responsible spending.

"The value is the event, not what it takes to get to the event," Mrs. Jordan says.

Worth the trouble?

Gowns and tuxedos have been purchased or rented, transportation is arranged, shoes are shined, hair is gelled or sprayed.

When students finally hit the big night, will it be worth the time, effort and money?

Kate Gardiner believes it will.

"This year it has a little more closure because it´s my senior prom," she says. "It´s one of the last big parties I´ll be at with my friends. It´s got more emotional attachment to it."

Mrs. Sauter understands that the prom truly is a meaningful event for teen-agers.

"Prom is a really special time for the students because it is a very adult function, and it´s very symbolic, in a social sense, that they are making the transition to adulthood," she says.

Mrs. Sauter says she likes the way students band together at prom time.

"Friends make sure other friends have dates; there is lots of group socializing," says the Arlington teacher. "When I was young, you went with your steady. Now there is a sense of camaraderie it´s not really a pairs thing as much as a group sharing the experience."

Mrs. Sauter´s son, David, says he sees the prom as "a good time to get together and party with each other before everyone splits up and goes their separate ways."

Whatever he is doing, says his mother, "he will have a curfew appropriate to the activity. It´s a lot like finances I need to hear the proposal."

Courtney´s mother sees her daughter´s event in a warm light as well.

"The focus is off romance as opposed to just having a good time. It´s good for them to get dressed up and be together," she says.

Courtney´s father, Leonard Jordan Jr., agrees.

"One thing I like about an event like this is that it promotes how young men and women should act," he says.

"This, versus the normal prom event."

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