Rites and Wrongs of Passage

The following article first appeared on May 30, 2009 for my The Humor of It…Through a Different Lens column for Shades of the Departed.  Of course, the subject was “in season” at the time, but I’ve decided to re-print my columns in the order they were published.  footnoteMaven has graciously allowed me to reprint my Humor of It articles here on What’s Past is Prologue.  I’m currently on hiatus writing this column for Shades, but I encourage you to visit the latest edition of the digital magazine for some excellent writing and photography!

As May leads into June and the sweet promise of summer, I am reminded of two spring and summer “rites of passage” of my youth that were also big photographic events: proms and graduations. Both events require you to wear somewhat “unnatural” clothing – that is, outfits you will never again wear in public. Because of these outfits, the photos of these events are often seen as humorous many years later.

My brother parodies the classic prom pose in 1985.

The unnaturalness of a prom is the fact that you dress up in wedding-like costumes of tuxes and gowns, yet you are warned by every adult in your life to refrain from all things lewd, dishonorable, romantic, and/or fun. In other words, you dress like you’re getting married but can’t do anything that would be associated with an actual marriage event. Nearly everyone who attended a prom has the obligatory photos taken at either your house or your date’s house or both. Often there is a shot of several couples who have decided to drive together, usually because only one lucky person had the license and the car. In these group shots, the couples look uncomfortable and anxious to go have some fun. Of course, they also look blinded by flashbulbs in what was likely the thirty-second photograph taken of them before even leaving the house.

My face is frozen into a smile…can we leave now?

Once at the prom, couples lined up for their “official” prom portrait. These are often the most humorous because you are put into the official Prom Shot position, an unnatural pose that you and your date will never find yourselves in unless you are standing way too close together while you wait in a buffet line.

Does anything say “1977” quite like a white tuxedo?

The best thing about these photos is that they seem to become dated almost immediately. They “depreciate” faster than driving a new car off of the lot. Looking back at the “old” hairdos and fashions is a scream, especially if your children or nieces and nephews find your ancient photos. In my junior and senior prom photos, I appear to have lived during the Victorian age since I am wearing decidedly un-cool dresses that barely showed my neck much less anything lower. What’s funny is not the fact that my mother chose these dresses for me, but the irony of it. I was not in need of any protection from the wandering hands or eyes of my dates – both were good friends who had already decided to enter the seminary after high school. My prom dates became Catholic priests! Well, at least I didn’t tempt them in those outfits!

With the future Fr. Rob in 1984 and the future Fr. Lou in 1985. Yes, I had a reputation, but it was the reputable kind – “Dance with Donna and you’ll enter the seminary!”

When it comes to uncomfortable poses, nothing beats a good graduation photograph. The classic portrait of the graduate wearing a judge-like gown and a “mortarboard” cap has not changed much over the years. In fact, you might even have a hard time dating a graduation photograph if it weren’t for hairstyles changing over the years, or perhaps styles of eyeglasses. The trick with these portraits is the ability to balance the board on your head – without messing up the “do” – and look natural in the process.

Father and son graduate high school 25 years apart.

It somehow seemed easier for the boys to look more natural than the girls wearing the silly hat, perhaps because they were far less concerned about their hair. For my portrait, the photographer chose a very large cap and used a clothespin in the back to hold it in place. As with any portrait, the photographer then turns your head in an odd angle and your torso in another. The fact that it was portrait day was stressful enough! “How’s my hair?” “How’s my face?” “OMG is that a zit?!” It doesn’t really matter how you look – later generations will laugh at your photo anyway.

Graduating Class of St. Peter’s Grade School, Philadelphia, PA, 1948.

Next week I’ll watch my oldest niece attend her first big “dance” – not quite a prom since dates, gowns, and tuxes are not required. Two weeks later, I’ll watch her don the funny hat and graduate from 8th grade. As the proud aunt, I’ll take a lot of photos. They will all be quite serious. But I’ll have to remind her that she’ll see the humor it them years later – when she is old enough that she thinks she looks like a baby in those photos! Happy dancing and graduating to all, and remember to smile for the camera!


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