Proms have become a trope in teen-age movies, which would have one believe that attending (or not attending) the prom defines high school existence (Pretty in Pink springs immediately to mind although there are plenty of others). This wasn’t my experience.
I went to several proms – all in the same lace-encrusted blue dress – and while they were all memorable in their own way, they were not the apex of my teen-age years. I doubt I’m not alone in this. I’ve never met one single person who claims their prom was the defining moment of their high school life.
In real life, I don’t think who got crowned king and queen of the prom was of matter of life and death (Carrie). I was never in the running so I didn’t really care. My parents, however, were the King and Queen of their high school prom
Our Prom Party sent up the movie-fantasy stereotype of a high school prom, it didn’t have much to do with the real thing. One of my Columbia students, Holden Weitz, wrote a hilarious teen movie that parodies this trope. That’s the movie I want to see made!
I assume “HW” refers to the title of a screenplay project. In my diaries, I almost always refer to projects by the initials in their titles which means – after all these years – I’ve forgotten far too many, especially those that failed to come to fruition. “HW” was one of those.
I have no idea what Colleen Camp or Joyce Hyser was like in high school – I never got to know either one of them that well (Hyser not at all, really). I do know that in 1982 Colleen and Joyce were indisputable royalty in Hollywood’s cool crowd. Confident gorgeous girls like them awed me – still do,
I’ve crossed paths with Colleen many times since then. She’s always delightful, bubbly and friendly, even though – at best – I’m on the outer periphery of people she knows. Colleen was and is a social whirlwind. She knows everyone in the industry and is renowned for her major parties. (I’m not on the guest list but that’s what I hear.)
Based on her intel about the Outsiders, it was shooting in Tulsa (I was out of the loop – see November 15, 1980). I admired Coppola’s savvy solution – the unequal per diems – to incite tension between actors which successfully translated to the screen.
In late February 1969, my clinical depression escalated. (See November 30, 1968) My part-time job at California Book couldn’t save me but it staunched the bleeding. It forced me to adhere to a schedule. I only worked 16 hours a week, but it was my first job and I took it seriously. It didn’t infringe on my social life since I no longer had one. I didn’t miss it.
The major symptom of my despair was a total lack of interest in anything. Anhedonia is the technical term. It means “an inability to experience pleasure from activities usually found enjoyable … including the motivation or desire to engage in activities.” It took enormous effort to shower. If I also washed my hair, I was too spent to go to school. Not so long ago I could do both – wash my hair and attend school – but not anymore.
I knew I wasn’t living up to the curse of my so-called potential. My parents were disappointed, although they never said so. It was nothing compared to how much I loathed myself.
The last thing I needed was more time in bed to think. That kind of self-centered contemplation was like swimming through quicksand – there was no way out, only down. The answer was activity, to get out of bed and out of the house. I knew what to do, but I lacked the energy – and the desire – to do it.
Writing about my year of depression is about as much fun as living it. I do it because so many people get stuck in something similar. In the thick of it, I felt alone and empty. It might’ve helped to know I wasn’t. If you’re depressed and read this, remember – you’re not alone or empty either. Things get better. Hang on.
The script I refer to here turned out to be my breakthrough spec script “At 17”, inspired by and loosely based on the brilliant Janis Ian song of the same title. I didn’t have the rights – I don’t know if anyone actually did – but ABC was developing it as a Movie of the Week (MOW).
My former boss at NBC, the late and much lamented Len Hill, was one of the ABC executives in charge of MOWs; my sister Janet was his assistant/secretary. He told me if I could write a brilliant script in the next ten days he’d consider it equally with the scripts the network paid for. Ten days isn’t enough to write a great script from scratch under any circumstances and it wasn’t the best of times for me. My son CD was 14 months old but well on his way to the terrible twos.
Nonetheless, I gave it my best shot. The tension was so high I threw up on some of those late nights (gross, I know) but – with Jani’s assistance – I finished it. I don’t think Len or anybody else expected me to do it.
The problem was – it wasn’t good enough. The network preferred the writer who cashed their big checks. The rejection was so devastating I gave up until my pride and desire for revenge resurrected me. “I’ll show you,” I thought. “I’ll do a great rewrite and prove you were wrong to dismiss me.”
Did I succeed? I think so. Although the film never got made, it was optioned three times and garnered interest from directors like Martha Coolidge and Amy Heckerling. Years after Molly Ringwald aged out of playing a teen-ager, she told me she would’ve loved to play one of the parts. To say the least, I would’ve loved for her to play it but my script didn’t reach her at the right time.
That’s the way things go. Big ups, big downs. Victories won, battles lost, it’s hard to quantify wins and losses when script quality is so subjective and the industry’s in constant flux. The bottom line is, were those ten sleepless days and nights worth it when I failed to get what I wanted? Would I do it again? Hell, yes. If I had my life to live over, I’d try harder, reach higher and risk bigger losses. The only way to fail for good is giving up.
The invitation for this party (reproduced above) explains it all. I wore the dress I actually wore to real proms in the sixties when I thought it was the most beautiful gown I’d ever seen. The style failed to age as well as I hoped – the dresses worn by most of the other female guests fared better (but I still got to be Prom Queen, an opportunity denied me in real life)
In this case, the photos are worth a thousand words so here are some of my favorites.
I was sandwiched in the center of a vinyl booth, two boys on either side. While they seemed semi-civilized at school, a round of Pepsis and fries at Denny’s unleashed their inner beast. As much as I hated to encounter obnoxious loud teenagers in real life, it was a thousand times worse to be dead center in a pack of them.
My adult self wanted to read them the riot act but my high school persona hunched speechless, red-faced.
They poured out the condiments Denny’s provided in little baskets on every table and scrawled their names in catsup, subbing salt for glitter. They blew straw wrappers at each other. They insulted diners who viewed us with disgust. If my four-year-old acted like this, I’d whisk him outside where he’d remain until he could behave himself but I didn’t have that option here. I wanted to beg our waitress’s forgiveness and leave a huge tip – I doubted the boys would leave a dime – but I couldn’t without calling attention to myself.
After they dropped me off, I called J in LA. “What’s up with your high school boyfriend?” he asked. I told him I wanted to dive under the table at Denny’s. It was hard for him to relate, since he lived a grown-up life with other adults.
The worst was yet to come. My 3rd period teacher sent me to the library because they were taking a pop quiz on material I missed. Another class, taught by Mrs. Murray, one of my former teachers in real life, already occupied the library.
When the lunch bell blared, students mobbed the door. A popular-looking perky blonde shook her bangled wrist and regaled her court with details about where she bought it, who designed it, and how much she paid. Most “girl talk” I overheard concerned fashion. They were as passionate about cute clothes as my sixties friends were about rock concerts and Viet Nam. My musings skidded to a halt when Mrs. Murray peered over their heads and said,
My adrenalin lurched into flight or fight mode. It was all I could do not to react, to pretend I didn’t realize Mrs. Murray addressed me. She repeated herself, not taking her eyes off me.
I feigned confusion. “No,” I said.
“You look exactly like a girl I had ten years ago,” Mrs. Murray said.
“Sorry, not me,” I said. As a preacher’s kid prone to Biblical references, I felt like Peter in the Garden of Gethsemane, denying my own identity three times. How could that exchange not arouse a glimmer of curiosity from one of the student witnesses? It didn’t. They were all more interested in being first in line at the snack bar than anything Mrs. Murray or I said.
Third period physiology was taught in the same classroom where another hapless instructor tried to teach me chemistry. I recognized the Periodic Table of the Elements I failed to memorize as a genuine junior. This time around, my lab partner was Jennifer, a girl who projected calm intelligence – just the type I’d be best friends with if we existed in the same time frame. At the end of the period, as she scrubbed our beakers, I said, “Want to have lunch?”
“Sorry. I eat with my friends.”
Rejection! It doesn’t get much more unequivocal. It felt as crummy as it did the first time I did high school. What disqualified me as a friend of Jennifer? The wrong shoes, my aging face, my lack of aptitude for physiology?
These questions will never be answered. Girls either like or dislike you “because.” That’s as specific as it gets. For what it’s worth, here’s my personal theory about how and why any hope of being BFF with Jennifer died in September, long before I returned to Wilcox.
Female cliques form hard and fast and – once established – they aren’t known for flexibility, diversity or the warm welcome extended to strangers – quite the contrary. The more exclusive and difficult a group is to access, the higher their status. I was four months too late to Jennifer’s party and nothing I did could change that.
In comparison, boys were a breeze. Looking lost and stupid – something I excelled at – was basis enough for a relationship. A boy named Brian showed me the ropes, introduced me to his friends, fixed my car and got me a part-time job at the same place he worked.
The latter was problematical since I couldn’t offer my real social security number (and get paid) without the risk of revealing my true age.
I was 29 years old – married and the mother of a 4-year-old – when I returned to Wilcox, the high school I graduated from, as a transfer student. Technically, I was there to research a script I’d been hired to write based on S.E. Hinton’s novel the Outsiders. The director and producers wanted to know if high school kids in 81 were much different from those in the early sixties.
On a deeper level, I was obsessed with high school and curious about how it would feel to do it again. Would the benefit of my vast college, professional and personal experiences make me more confident? Would I feel like I had all the answers? In a word – NO.
If anything, it was more hair-raising than the first time around. In part, this was due to my realistic fear that someone would notice I looked closer to 30 then 17, assume I was a narc (because why else would a woman my age be posing as a student?) and knife me in the girl’s bathroom. Making the situation even dicier, I was staying with one of my real Wilcox contemporaries – Debbie Callan – who, at that time, worked as a dispatcher/translator for the Santa Clara police department. How could I not be a narc?
There was never a moment I could relax. I didn’t have a fake driver’s license and I needed to carry the real one – which meant taking pains to make sure nobody saw it (especially the birthdate). I didn’t carry credit cards or checks because a 17-year-old wouldn’t. When making reference to music or books that weren’t contemporary, I had to calculate how old my fake self would’ve been as opposed to my real self.
Before I started, I devised an elaborate backstory to explain my mid-semester transfer – an alcoholic mother in rehab, I was staying with an aunt etc. – but it turned out to be totally unnecessary. Nobody I met showed the slightest interest in my backstory.
To be continued in upcoming blogs – because January ’81 was one of the more interesting Januarys in my life.
My parents were right. Sandy and I were too old and too tall for trick or treating. Despite this embarrassing debacle, it killed me to give up Halloween – a holiday I loved and the one endurance sport I excelled at.
Luckily, it wasn’t the end, merely a 14-year time-out. As soon as my children were old enough, I hit the streets with them in tow. Parental supervision of trick or treaters was unheard of when I was young but by 1979 times had changed. Only crackheads who didn’t deserve to be parents let their kids face the darkness (razer blades in apples!) without adult protection. I volunteered – okay, demanded – to serve as the designated grown-up leading the pack of kids.
Like any champion athlete or trick or treater, I focused on the prize. I started earlier, stayed out later and moved faster than other trick or treaters to maximize my intake of candy. I expected my children to carry on this proud tradition.
Instead they showed their millennial stripes. We’d barely clocked half an hour at a light jog when my youngest whined, “Momie, let’s go home. We have enough candy.”
Enough candy?? In my world, there’s no such thing. “What’s the matter with you? We’re just getting started. Step on it, a coven of witches just passed us and the vampires are gaining.” They complied, if you call staggering behind me compliance, and blatantly stalled. “Momie, we can’t cross the street with cars coming.” The little slackers weren’t willing to make a run for it!
Where did I go wrong? Did I spoil them by making it too easy to acquire candy without working for it? Did I fail to instill a strong enough competitive drive? As it turned out, their competitive drive functioned perfectly – candy just wasn’t a strong enough motivator. They’d climb a mountain to find an Imaginary Pokémon but walk an extra block for a king-size Snickers bar? Nah.
I just don’t get it. I never thought I’d say this but what’s the matter with kids today?
While no one in high school wanted to look like a dummy, looking like a brain was worse – at least for girls. Standards were different for boys. For many girls – myself included – high intelligence made a boy even more appealing.
Girls learned early to avoid appearing smarter than a boy you liked. Lucky for me, I was blessed with a knack for looking dumber than I am. Mere days after we met, my husband-to-be confronted me with the fact his peers – all the other USC first year law students in our student housing – thought I was stupid.
Highly insulted (but not surprised), I informed him I’d been accepted by UCLA’s School of Law twice. I declined to attend upon reading the course catalog both times. “Constitutional Law” stopped me dead in my tracks.
Where were the fun, theatrical classes like “Perry Mason Cross Examination” or “Burke’s Law”?
Feminism wasn’t on anyone’s radar when I attended Wilcox. Advice columns in magazines aimed at girls advised them to build up a boy’s ego, direct conversation to him and his interests, avoid showing him up, compliment him for every little thing you can. “You’re such a good driver!”
Things have changed since then, I hope. There are signs intelligence is actually prized in high school today.
Feminism helped as did the population boom. Intense competition produced parents who spare no expense to get their spawn a spot in a top college. In 1969, we braved an SAT exam room with nothing more than our #2 pencils. Today, it would practically be child abuse not to support your baby with tutors, refresher courses, webinars and college consultants. This suggests that perhaps it’s safe – even desirable – for boys and girls alike to strut their smarts in high school. I’m curious.