Editor's Note: This piece was authored by Young Voices Contributor Christian Barnard.
As a D.C. education policy wonk examining school finance, it’s hard for me to avoid viewing students through the lens of numbers, dollars, or costs. When schools began to shut down due to coronavirus, my outlook remained largely the same. I’ve been studying the system from a 30,000-foot view—how education budgets will recover, how states should reform their funding formulas, how school districts will keep doors open, etc. But when I got to play a small part in “Prom-on-Wheels” in mid-May, I was reminded of something crucial. Students have had a lot of unique reasons to be disappointed over this past semester, and the shutdown’s personal effects on students can’t be fully captured in economic or political terms.
For the last few months in Carlisle, PA, I’ve been quarantining with my best friend Preston and his wife Bailey. They’re full-time YoungLife ministry leaders who work with middle and high school students. While my day job has stayed largely the same, theirs has become something of an essential service to their community of cooped-up teens. Watching them do what they do best, it’s hard to stop yourself from joining in.
Thankfully, I didn’t have to. They needed any help they could get in executing a simple idea: Bringing senior prom to their quarantined seniors. Weeks of planning and coordination went into the effort. Together, we rounded up a group of close friends to help, constructed a mobile DJ booth in a truck bed, hired a professional photographer, created corsages and boutonnieres, and collected Burger King crowns for all of the prom kings and queens. Once the plan circulated on social media, dozens of families eagerly signed up.
We got up early on the morning of May 16, mapped out our routes, and began our tour of Carlisle. From lunch until after dark, we made loud entrances into neighborhoods by honking horns, blasting tunes, and waving brightly-colored signs. Students waited on their lawns, beaming in prom dresses and suits—or whatever outfit they could throw together for the occasion. “DJ Facemask,” a friend with a panda mask and an aux cord, blared song requests for each of our kings and queens, and a group of high schoolers and friends driving behind us danced along with them from a safe distance.
As the day went on, the number of cars trailing us grew longer. On our final visit, we stopped at a small house on a no-outlet road 20 minutes outside of downtown Carlisle as the sun was setting. We leaned on our car horns and worked our two speakers in the truck bed at their loudest volume. It’s hard to describe the shock and awe on Mom and Dad’s faces as they realized that there were 15 more cars behind us—all there to celebrate their daughter. Dozens of other seniors, some of whom hardly knew each other and most of whom didn’t know the girl at our last stop, stepped out of their cars, jumping and screaming and cheering as we crowned our final prom queen—just as we’d done for the last 68 kids. Crying moms, curious neighbors, supportive policemen—they all realized that this was something special. Watch the video from the day. You won’t regret it.
It’s a shame that America’s high school class of 2020 has had to miss what would’ve been major milestones. That may not sound like a big deal to some of us who graduated long ago, but some experts think that missing out on these kinds of experiences can have negative long-term effects on motivation and well-being.
Each stop for “Prom-on-Wheels” was only about seven minutes long, yet these Carlisle seniors got to be a part of something they’ll remember for a very long time. “Prom-on-Wheels” may have even held more meaning than a normal prom celebration ever could have.
Using an endearingly obnoxious megaphone as we pulled away from each stop, Preston reminded seniors of something that holds true for every student in America, no matter who they are: “You are known. You are loved. You are not forgotten.”
Christian Barnard is an education policy analyst at Reason Foundation.