Grosse Pointe is a community that honors tradition. (Sometimes to a fault. That’s for another day.) Lots of people who live here as adults grew up here, went away to college, and came back like homing pigeons, because they like the continuity of the place, its small-town feel, its bedrock of lifers and rotating cast of newcomers, drawn by the beauty, the schools, the lake.
What that means is, when the Grosse Pointe War Memorial (a community center) announces the dates for its middle-school dances, many of the parents you know will remember attending them when they were 12 years old. Or, like my friend Michael, whose son grew up here with his ex-wife, will have a different memory:
“I remember how scantily clad the girls were,” he told me as I prepared to drive Kate to her first one. Michael went to Catholic school, so he has a certain Catholic-schoolboy idea of what constitutes scantily clad. That’s what I thought, anyway.
Five minutes later, I pulled into the parking lot, and beheld two girls shivering by the door. On a chilly October evening, they were wearing shorts and tank tops. I immediately wondered if the other thing I heard about the dances, which everyone calls War Dances, was true — that they were cesspools of drinking, smoking and oh-my-god-I-can’t-even-imagine. I hadn’t believed that, because I thought how stupid can the people who run these things be? The procedure for just buying a ticket made in loco parentis sound like dangerous permissiveness. There was a special ID only a parent could buy, after swearing your child was a lawfully enrolled student of the school system, and you couldn’t buy a ticket without the ID. There were strict hours, pickup and dropoff policies. No one would be allowed to leave before 10 p.m.; there were no ins-and-outs. I think you’d have an easier time getting into the White House.
On the other hand, there were those girls, dressed for the Fourth of July in October.
Kate was no help. I insisted she dress appropriately, but she never told me why, month after month, I was picking up the only girl in long pants and sleeves. She said shorts and tanks were just what everyone else wore, and I chalked it up to one of the quirkier sub-traditions, one that, needless to say, I would hold the line against.
Well. This year I finally got to set foot inside the place, when I offered to chaperone. It immediately became clear why summer outfits are the uniform, and I smacked my forehead for stupidity: When you put a couple hundred sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders into a ballroom and crank up the tunes, it takes about eight minutes for the room to reach the temperature of a sauna. The ballroom looks out over the lake, but the million-dollar view is gone by the third song, as condensation covers the floor-to-ceiling windows. At the stroke of 7:30, the doors open and the kids pile up at the check-in tables, where they must display the special ID and have it checked against the computer-generated list of names. No ticket sales at the door. If you haven’t paid for a ticket by noon on dance day, you are turned away — no exceptions. Lady Gaga is already blasting from the ballroom, and they’re eager to get moving. Within 20 minutes, nearly everyone is there, the lights are down, the light outside — what you can see of it through the condensation — has faded into gray, and we’re war-dancing.
What that means is, and this will be familiar to anyone who ever attended a middle-school dance of any sort, clots of three to seven girls dance together in constellations, while boys talk in similar-size knots, or else sit in the chairs that line the walls. And that is pretty much how it goes for the next two and a half hours.
After everyone checks in, we set up the refreshments, which consist of ice water and lemonade. The one parent-volunteer holdover from last year rolled out a cart with what seemed like an excessive number of water pitchers. We refilled them all three or four times through the night, and for a solid hour, all we did was pour, pour, pour. As soon as we could set down a dozen cups, a dozen kids would pile out, red-faced, throw down the ice water like marathoners, discard the cups and head back into the heat. Lady Gaga gave way to Beyoncé, who gave way to Mylie Cyrus, who gave way to half a dozen artists I’ve never heard of. When I got tired of pouring I would circle the perimeter of the floor, careful always to avert my gaze from my own kid, to whom I’m promised I would give no indication of our relationship. Girls dancing, boys watching — check. Then I’d leave, because I was dressed in long pants and long sleeves, and brother, it was hot in there.
I asked the man who, along with his wife, organizes these affairs, how the drugs-and-alcohol rumors got started. He said the only incident he’d known of was about three years ago, when some eighth-grade girls showed up drunk, got past check-in and promptly barfed on the dance floor. Two police officers monitor the doors and occasionally do a perimeter trot-around. The bathroom is a two-stall affair with the door left open to the hallway. The no-entry-without-ID policy eliminates drop-ins, and things have gone smoothly pretty much forever.
At 10 p.m. sharp — you could set your watch — the lights come on, the music stops, and the whole crew piles out like puppies to meet the line of parents lined up for the trip home. I made one last pass through the ballroom, which, though emptying swiftly, still retained its heat.
I wished I were wearing shorts, too.
Bloggage? Some good stuff today:
An interview with Maurice Sendak (HT: Laura Lippman) about his enduring children’s classic, and the upcoming movie adaptation. Some great evidence of why editors aren’t always right:
The entire staff at the publishing house were keen on my changing the word “hot” to “warm” on the last page. Because “hot” meant “burn.”
(For some reason this reminds me of the time on the old Dick Van Dyke show, when Laura wrote a charming children’s book, and Rob, the envious professional writer, wanted to work on it. He changed “sad” to “morose.”)
A long segment from Rachel Maddow, but she just nails the Nobel and is smarter than everything else I read about Friday’s news, and that includes Tom Friedman’s stupid “the speech he should give in Oslo” paint-by-numbers kit. (If there any column-writing trope more stale than “the speech he should give”? Yes: the “open letter.” Now you know.)
Finally, for Stratford fans only: Douglas Campbell died recently. The Scottish-Canadian actor was 87 and a founding member of the greatest Shakespeare company in North America. Robert Fulford explains why he mattered, in the National Post.