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The Tuesday Column: Rite of Passage
Middle School Dance and Other Epidemics

They're inescapable, those markers that purposely trip up parenting with yellow-tape DO NOT CROSS signs so your child can begin shedding her childhood. That is, shedding you.

So there it was. My daughter Sadie's first school dance. Not just for her sixth-grade class, which would have been a no-brainer of Friday night indulgence, but for her entire middle school brood - sixth-graders still so out of range of puberty's Antietams that they might as well be nostalgic for the good old days of separation anxiety all the way up to (up being a relative term in the slouch of early adolescence) eighth-graders quoting the occasional miniskirt I used to spy on 1980s streetwalkers on Park Avenue and 34th Street. Lumping them all together feedlot style is enough to put the fear of the Taliban's last surviving spiritual ambassador to America - Dr. Phil - in your heart. Isn't he the one who thinks middle schools are in the middle of a bacchanal epidemic? But we weren't interested in playing Stalin to Sadie's discoveries, either. A three-hour dance couldn't possibly be that much worse than everyday school - which, as Clausewitz, the military philosopher, would have it, is a hoedown by other means anyway. She'd go. I'd chaperone.

When we got there a mass of lambs was pressed up against the single entrance to the gymnasium, trickling in with their $4 cover charge ("all proceeds for Katrina relief!") and $8 lipstick-and-gravy makeovers, and very effectively warming up their vocal chords for the screaming to come. I thought of the sounds of 155mm shells crashing around me in Lebanon in 1978: murmurs in comparison. And this was the dance's antechamber. I was surprised by the subdued wardrobes. The school's dress code (which attempts to revive the burqa fashion of 1990s Afghanistan) seemed to be exercising after-hour influences here. Britney wannabes were not much in evidence. No dangling bellybuttons, no linguini tops, only a few slutty bottoms. But slutty fashion is every other mama's norms in these days of democratized bad taste, compliments of mall-marts and subhuman wages. So you can't really blame the lambs. I had a bracing chat with the chaperone-in-chief, a personable coach who gave you the impression that she'd have managed very well as a commander in Patton's tank battalions. The rest of the chaperone crew, me included, was not nearly so impressive, our overhanging guts being more show than tell.

The student population was our very own Lake Pontchartrain, and at 6:30, the levees broke. The lambs didn't quite go in the desired direction. Most of them massed in the darkened half of the cafeteria for what passed for dancing and what looked more like a mosh pit on speed, but tributaries led constantly down corridors, especially to a set of bathrooms - every dance's favorite Vegas lounge - and any pair of doors that looked as if they led somewhere, anywhere, especially the restricted and proscribed. One boy was outside on the grass, not where he was supposed to be, gathering a small mob because he'd managed to discover a pigeon who couldn't fly, and was holding it in his hands like a one-man PETA committee until a chaperone with a gut three times the size of mine barreled down on the scene, picked up where I left off ("you can't babysit the bird for three hours") and gave me a chance to go check some other minor disaster.

Actually, there weren't any. There were flushed faces, sweat, the back-and-forth ebullience of discovering that a corridor can be an entirely new world for six seconds, the desperate speeches about having just been dumped, the constant looking-for-so-and-so, the urgency of just going somewhere different, even if it's the other end of the dance floor (you wonder why none of this urgency ever applies when you ask them to take out the garbage), the mussing and messing and security-blanket-caressing of their own hair (the older ones muss, the younger ones caress, the ones in between mess), and that constant, constant grab for the cell phone, which has become every child's pacifier.

Through it all the dance floor roiled with something that was meant to resemble music but was more evocative of cadences in an oil tanker's boiler room. By 7:30 the kids were being allowed into the gym to give their eardrums a rest and their legs a different bounce (basketball for the boys, conferencing for the girls), and by 8 Sadie was as ready to leave as I was. No brawls, no punching festivals, no stabbings. The most that had happened, that I could see, was the expulsion of one girl from the dance floor (but not the dance itself) for having, allegedly, danced too "inappropriately" with someone else. It's a given that no place in America is ever safe from the word inappropriate. It would have been a miracle of Fatima proportions had I spent two hours in that setting without once hearing the word. The miracle spared, and Sadie blessedly still willing to hold my hand unprompted, it was time to leave, pick up our Mongolian beef and Mei fun at a local Chinese joint, and retreat to the healing narcotics of wife, Danish beer and Dave Chappelle.
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