I’m always surprised by how much I learn about our school from our prom. We recently held our prom earlier than most schools due to Ramadan, as we wanted more of our Muslim students to be able to attend.
Our high school is a school for newcomer English Language Learners from all over the world who have been in the USA less than 4 years. The students are excited by the idea of the prom but they don’t have a strong expectation of what it should be so there’s no comparison or disappointment.
When the students enter the room of the restaurant where we hold the prom, and they see the balloons, the lights, and their classmates dressed like elegant movie stars with elaborate hairstyles, they’re thrilled. Some kids have dates, but they don’t need one. Last year, a student brought her three-year-old daughter for part of the prom, all dressed up. The daughter was treated like a little princess by the students who played and danced with her. It wasn’t your traditional prom, but it was the prom our students wanted.
This year, I was surprised to see a student, Alex,* who we hadn’t seen in months and had been trying to find. We were told by his relatives that he was living in Queens with friends and no longer wanted to attend school. They said he didn’t have a phone number. Our counselor managed to find him via email and researched a transfer high school where Alex could continue his education in Queens while still working, but then Alex stopped communicating.
Alex showed up to the prom as the date of one of our students, looking dapper and pretty sheepish.
It was prom. How to handle this situation?
I gathered my guidance counselor and one of my teachers, and we had Alex come with us to the lobby.
Alex hung his head and mumbled, “What, miss?”
I realized that I could chastise and lecture him. I could also learn. I could get some idea of why this student had stopped coming to school.
“You know, we’ve been trying hard to find you and reach you.” I paused, realizing he couldn’t possibly see it from our perspective. “You’re still a student in our school, and we’re responsible for your education. Did you know that?”
He looked surprised. “No. I thought I just stop coming to school, then I’m not in the school anymore.”
We found out he had been working with a contractor doing plumbing repairs in city sewer pipes. He felt like he was learning and he enjoyed it. It sounded like a good possibility for him. He felt useful.
We got his phone number—we knew it was his number because we had him send a text to the teacher’s cell phone—and then we told him we’d like to help him find a way to finish his education so that he could move further in plumbing. We told him we saw him potentially being a manager or business owner. We meant it. We explained to him how an education would benefit his career and earning power. This seemed to appeal to him.
After he went back to prom, we vowed that next year, we’d have students’ names recorded for every ticket we sold. Every year, we have a learning curve– this is our school’s fourth prom.
I still have the impulse to see myself as “failing” with Alex. He’s not going to be part of our graduation this year. I see how we underestimated our students’ social network outside of school, and I see how we need to keep researching and finding work-learning opportunities for students who get disengaged, and catch them earlier. We need to engage our boys better, especially our Latino boys.
But also, right now, I still see an opportunity to work with Alex to learn more about the path he’s taken, see its potential, and collaborate with him in unlocking his own greatness.
The prom always shows me something new about my students. Sometimes it fits my preference, such as when our students request certain songs and we see a traditional Albanian or Yemeni or African dance break out that shows us a different side of our students. Sometimes it doesn’t fit my preference, such as seeing a student who slipped away suddenly show up. Either way, it’s like finding a new piece of the puzzle of my school– a new detail that adds to the wider picture.
*The names and identifying features of students have been changed.
Photo credit: Julie Nariman