"I would we were all of one mind, and one mind good." --Cymbeline, V.iv.209-210. An English teacher's log. Slow down: Check it once in a while.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Proms of Innocence and Experience--Reprint

Since our prom is tomorrow night, I thought I'd reprint my previous posting on the subject. Though it may seem that society has utterly abandoned the image of marriage I propose in the commentary, I stand by it as the only vision of prom and of marriage that gives hope to civilization. As my friend Rif Charles puts it, our choice is either right back up or left on down.

Proms of Innocence

A She: The prom has to be perfect. Perfection means being asked by the cutest boy in the class above me, spending weeks getting ready for the best night of my life so that every girl in the room will envy my dress and my luck in having such a gorgeous date. But it won’t be luck, really, but the reward of all my hopes and dreams, and if it all goes the way I want it to, he will dance me to the stars, and—who knows?—maybe it will lead to our being lovers forever. I can’t wait for the prom!

A He: The prom has to be perfect. Perfection means asking the cutest girl in the class below me, spending a fortune getting ready for the best night of my life so that every guy in the room will envy my suavity and my luck in having such a gorgeous date. But it won’t be luck, really, but the reward of all my expenses and planning, and if it all goes the way I want it to, she will let me French-kiss her, and—who knows?—maybe it will lead to our making love that night. I can’t wait for the prom!

B She: I hope we have fun at the prom. He’s not the cutest boy in my class, but I like him. I hope he likes my dress. He’s sort of shy underneath. If I can just get him to laugh early in the evening, we’ll both relax and have a better time. I have to remember not to be disappointed if we don’t dance to the swing numbers; he thinks he’s not good at swing. I hope he did well on that exam yesterday. I won’t bring it up unless he does. But he doesn’t seem to hold onto stuff like that, so maybe it doesn’t matter. I can’t wait to see him in his tux!

B He: I hope we have fun at the prom. She’s the nicest girl in my class, and she makes me laugh. I hope she likes the corsage. She’s so easy to be with. I hope we can get through the first dance without my stepping on her toe or something. Where will I put my hands in the slow dances so she doesn’t think I’m being fresh? I hope she did well on that exam yesterday. I won’t bring it up unless she does. But I don’t think she really gets upset about stuff like that, so maybe I can ask her. I can’t wait to see her all dressed up!

Proms of Experience

A She: What a horrible night. That noisy band and that repulsive food. I never want to see him again, or that—I’m not even going to say her name. How dare he agree to dance with her when he’s supposed to be with me? And how dare she tell him what happened over three weeks ago with—I don’t want to think about it. What a baboon to close my dress in the car door. And those stupid jokes of his. What were all his jock friends laughing at? How dare he think I was the kind of girl who would—why didn’t I say no when he asked me; I might have been asked by—what an awful prom.

A He: What a horrible night. That clueless band and the waiter taking my plate away before I was even done eating. I will never go out with her again. That friend of hers is ten times better looking, and obviously liked me. How can I get her number? Imagine saying she’d go to prom with me when only three weeks ago—oh who cares what she did with him. She didn’t even get my jokes. What were all her stupid friends giggling about? Who does she think she is, hanging on me all night and then not even letting me kiss her? Instead of her I should have asked—what an awful prom.

B She: What a great prom! The band was ok and the food was good. He looked so gorgeous in that tux, and his laugh is really infectious. I wish I hadn’t let the corner of my dress get stuck in the car door; he was so apologetic, I felt bad for him. And how stupid I was not to get his joke about—but at least he didn’t rub it in. Anyway, it was fun. Watching him dance that one dance with—what a good dancer he is. He is such a gentleman too, and so are his friends. The way he looked at me when he came back to the table—I think he really liked my dress. I hope he calls me tomorrow. I can’t wait to thank him for a wonderful evening.

B He: What a great prom! The band was ok and there was a lot of food. She was so gorgeous I couldn’t stop looking at her, and she’s so funny too. What a dork I was to catch the corner of her dress in the car door, but she was so nice about it and didn’t seem to care at all. And why did I have to tell that stupid joke about—I hope she didn’t think I was trying to show off. Anyway, it was fun. She is so lively and relaxed at the same time. I like her friends too. The way she looked at me when I came back after having to dance with—I think she meant it about how good I looked in my tux. I’m going to call her tomorrow to thank her for a wonderful evening. Maybe she’ll want to go to a movie next week.


Like commencement, the ceremony celebrating graduation from childhood learning to adult, the prom is a ceremonial graduation too, from childhood social relations into adult, where male and female, united to one another as individuals, also take their place in that larger society composed of couples.

Formal dress, courteous behavior, traditional gestures—the corsage, the opening and closing of doors, the dinner, the dancing, the feminine whispers and male bonhomie during temporary separations, the attentiveness and good humor in rejoining—all these are the forms in which two unions are practiced as a kind of initiation into the life of marriage in society:

One is the ceremonially acknowledged joining of a young man and a young woman on a personal date that (however remotely) prefigures wedding. The other is the ceremonially acknowledged joining of each couple with all other couples in a collective date that (however remotely) represents society’s foundation upon marriage. Courtesy toward one’s date ceremonially represents the personal love upon which marriage is built. Prom traditions ceremonially represent the courtesy of couples upon which society is built.

Eros underlies and energizes both these kinds of union without in itself compromising their meaning. The prom, like marriage, like society, is in part a harnessing and channeling of eros in the name of civilization. Nor does it matter whether the prom date eventually becomes the spouse. (And none of this disparages those individuals who, for whatever reasons, do not or cannot participate in the ceremony.)

The point here is that the prom’s ceremonial civilization of eros is corrupted when the envisioning of it is hijacked by sentimentality, whether of the romantic (A She) or the erotic (A He) kind, which turns it into a mere wish fulfillment fantasy. No evening can possibly live up to such expectations—and a good thing too, considering how socially and spiritually impoverished are the people imagined in and imagining it.

Eros is active in both couples. But Couple A is doomed to disappointment, in the prom and in life, until they graduate from self-centeredness to civilized human kindness. It is for Couple B that the prom may both be a true pleasure and become a joyful memory. Upon them, as upon a solid foundation, society may rightly hope to build its future.

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

The Book of Esther

The Book of Esther has just been read for the holiday of Purim. It tells the compelling story of an attempt to destroy the Jews for worshipping God instead of men, though God is not mentioned in the book.

At the heart of the story come four sentences that form its moral center. Brought to mind in almost any circumstances, a friend noted, they would significantly improve one’s life.

In the story, the evil Haman has persuaded the king to decree that the Jews be destroyed. Esther, the king’s favorite and a Jew, is charged by her elder cousin Mordechai to request the king to save her people. She tells Mordechai that it is death to appear before the king without being called unless the king holds out his golden scepter to the supplicant, whereupon Mordechai exhorts her:

“Think not with thyself that thou shalt escape in the king’s house, more than all the Jews.”

You are the member of a people who exist to serve God. From that calling and its potential cost not even the house of the king offers protection. (We live in the richest and most comfortable circumstances in the history of the world. Are we to worship riches and comfort?)

“For if thou altogether holdest thy peace at this time, then shall there enlargement and deliverance arise to the Jews from another place; but thou and thy father’s house shall be destroyed.”

God will effect salvation one way or another, but to hide from your role in it is to be destroyed. There is no safety in fear.

“And who knoweth whether thou art come to the kingdom for such a time as this?”

You have been raised to the height of favor. Why? By whom? The king thinks he has raised you for your beauty and charm. To leave it at that is to worship men. But perhaps—whether you know it or not (and no one can be certain)—you have been placed where you are to play this part, which none else can play, in the story of salvation, and in the lives of all who may hear of you.

Esther responds:

Go fast for me for three days, I will fast too, “and so will I go in unto the king, which is not according to the law: and if I perish, I perish.”

Length of days and wealth and power and beauty are not life’s ends but its means to higher ends not all visible to us. In choosing to play her part in the story, whose end she cannot foresee, Esther defines for all of us the virtue of courage in the service of the good.