They arrived at the one of the most cherished rites of early adulthood, Prom Night, with all the awkwardness of any senior class.
There they were at the City Year headquarters in the South End, an institutional venue that had been transformed into a dance hall with decorations, purple balloons, and a lot of lights. The revelers came from neighborhoods all over Boston. Some are students at alternative high schools, though many aren’t enrolled in school at all. Others are working for their GED, or training for a job.
This was the second annual prom organized by the Boston Youth Service Network. BYSN is a coalition of community organizations that work with teenagers and young adults who have failed in traditional high schools.
When the adults who are working to help them get back on track asked them last year what they wanted to do, they got a surprising answer: They really wanted to have a prom.
“We thought it was something that is really symbolic of high school,” said Analiese Barnes-Classen, 18, one of the organizers. “It was something we got really excited about. A lot of us don’t get to participate in traditional activities like band or after-school stuff.”
Some students who have transferred or dropped out of traditional high schools have the option of returning to prom there. But many don’t want to, either for security reasons or because they simply don’t feel like they belong anymore. They’ve left high school behind in a way, but not without a sense of loss.
“They don’t get a lot of the fun social stuff because of the barriers they have to deal with,” said Natalia Urtubey of BYSN. “A lot of them have kids or have to deal with court or jobs. They have to be grown-ups in a lot of ways. But they are young adults who deserve to have a good time.”
The prom idea was the brain child of the youth council of BYSN, which also helped publicize it and decorate the hall. The prom was $10 a head or $18 a couple, waived for those who couldn’t afford it.
These are young people who are often described by those who work with them as “disconnected.” They have left not only school, but also the stereotypical teenage lifestyle. Helping them to complete their educations or find jobs is crucial to helping them feel connected to society. But so are social activities that might appear passe.
Alexandra Oliver-Davila is the executive director of Sociedad Latina and a cochair of BYSN. She said many of the students she works with are craving a sense of belonging. “Most of the youth that come to us have not felt supported or known in their schools and it hasn’t worked out for them,” she said. “A lot of the words the kids use when they talk about us are words like ‘family’,” she said.
Taranika Holloway of Brighton was one of those enjoying her prom moment. She attends an alternative high school, and said she wishes more of her friends who struggle in regular high schools would avoid dropping out. “They should find an alternative school,” she said between dances.
Don’t ask me about the music, since I recognized exactly two of the songs. (No, I will not further my embarrassment by saying which two.) Here’s what was familiar: For the first hour the girls wanted to dance, while the guys stood around with their hands in their pockets, desperately trying to look composed. After a while, the ice magically broke, and everyone seemed to have a lot of fun.
The partying ended at the rather early hour of 10 p.m. with its mission achieved. For one Saturday night they experienced high school — and their lives — in a way many teenagers take for granted.
“I think it’s a memory,” Urtubey said. “It’s a social moment they will remember.”