- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 22, 2005

I am sitting in a line of minivans in front of the high school, my glassy stare blurring the red taillights that stretch before me like the landing lights of an airport runway. It is dark and late and cold outside, and I long to be under the covers drinking tea and watching Debbie Travis perform miracles of renovation on HGTV.

Instead, I am waiting.

Through the dimly lit windows of the high school, silhouettes of teenagers amble through the hallways, lingering, I imagine, in case something exciting happens before the homecoming dance officially comes to an end. Only it officially ended seven minutes ago. Still, no one leaves the building.

Disguised as a traditional football game to welcome alumni back to the community, homecoming (with its rituals) actually is an annual exercise in high school angst. All the float-building, hall decorating, skit competitions and bake sales are just smoke screens for the real purpose of the weeklong homecoming ordeal: getting a date.

Unfolding almost from the first day of school, homecoming invariably includes four stages: anticipation, apprehension, anxiety and acceptance.

For us, it all began back in early September with feigned disinterest. My daughters mentioned in passing the one or two couples whose homecoming plans became public more than four weeks before the dance. These early invitations fell into two categories — “obvious” and “overeager” — but they fed the first phase of homecoming’s emotional roller coaster: anticipation.

This is the period when anything is possible. My girls take extra time in the mornings to get ready for school, and I notice the ever-present ponytails give way to soft curls or electric hair straighteners. Some days, there is mascara.

In the anticipation phase, girls fall asleep at night imagining the romantic (and largely unrealistic) extremes to which a boy might go to extend the hoped-for homecoming invitation. Perhaps he’ll make an announcement over the public address system, or maybe he’ll shout out his intentions while running past the crowd during a cross-country race.

Then, about three weeks before the dance, these things actually happen, but not to my girls.

This is the stage when apprehension sets in.

What seemed like a likely possibility — getting a date for the dance — has become questionable. Not to mention, all the nice guys are asking other people. With just two weeks left until the big event, the roster of available dates is dwindling down to the boys who are either too short or too strange. It’s not looking good.

By now, daily homecoming updates are a part of our afternoon drive time. Conversations that formerly centered on teachers and homework or the latest news from the sports team now analyze potential pairings of homecoming couples.

With the dance just 10 days away, anxiety sets in. Neither of my daughters has a date, though my freshman conceivably could have had three. It seems whenever her friends suggest to a boy that he ask her, she “gets weird” and stops socializing with him, foiling any attempt to ask to escort her to the dance.

I tell her she sounds like a girl who doesn’t really want a date, which, I reassure her, is perfectly fine.

Despite my insistence that having a date isn’t critical to having fun (and might perhaps be an impediment), the frenzy over homecoming plans reaches its zenith a week before the big day.

We all know it’s unlikely anyone is still looking for a date, and moreover, the guys who might extend an invitation to the dance at this point probably have been turned down repeatedly by other girls, which doesn’t bode well for an evening at the hop.

I sit up late listening to the sagas that have captured my girls’ attention, and when the conversation turns to their disappointment about having no escorts, I remind them their days will come. What else can I say?

In truth, I sense my girls are relieved not to face the pressure that comes with saying “yes” to a date for a dance. The rules of etiquette that once governed dating are long gone, leaving behind a void of social graces in which a single night out implies a steady romantic relationship — or more. They’re not looking for boyfriends just yet, and especially not the expectations that go with them.

At last, homecoming week arrives. There’s a costume contest and a pep rally and a spaghetti dinner. The closer we get to Saturday night, the less anxiety my daughters feel. Accepting their fate, they decide they don’t need dates to have fun.

They make plans to join groups of friends for potluck dinners before the dance — groups that thankfully include several other dateless guys and gals. In the company of their peers, they’re comfortable, relaxed — more so than some of the girls enduring an awkward evening with boys they don’t know well.

I’m reviewing the past month in my mind as I put my van back in “drive” and inch forward in the pickup line. Finally, the front doors of the high school break open and teens pour into the parking lot.

My girls walk toward me, crossing their arms against the chill of an October sky. When they pile into the van they talk simultaneously about their evening, and in the span of a 10-minute drive, the homecoming hype has concluded at last. It’s finally over.

Then again, the cool night air reminds me that the Winter Ball is just around the corner.

Columnist Marybeth Hicks, a wife of 18 years and mother of four children, lives in the Midwest. She uses her column to share her perspective on issues and experiences that shape families nationwide. Visit her Web site (www.marybethhicks.com) or send e-mail to mary beth.hicks@comcast.net.

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