The Common Good
January-February 1999

First Dance

by Ed Spivey Jr. | January-February 1999

The global economy is in shambles, the presidency is in crisis, and Americans are
struggling under the weight of a broken health care system. But hey, I've got my own
problems.

The global economy is in shambles, the presidency is in crisis, and Americans are struggling under the weight of a broken health care system. But hey, I've got my own problems. Our 12-year-old wants to go to a dance. With boys.

Forgive me if I tend to focus on personal experiences rather than commenting on important political and historical events. But I feel that the universal lessons are better drawn from one's own life, rather than, say, from public figures such as Trent Lott, who I think has plastic hair. (It never moves.)

Lately, the fundamental truth I've discovered is that when it comes to accepting the approaching adulthood of their children, most parents are clinically insane. Case in point:

The invitation to the middle-school party arrived via the U.S. Mail and, by law, we couldn't open it or discard it without our daughter's knowledge. Silly law.

We knew this day would come, but we felt that she still needed a couple more decades at home before beginning her social life outside our double-locked front door.

Our reasoning was as follows: She is a straight-A student, a disciplined athlete, and a warm, loving child. Naturally, once out of the house she would immediately take drugs, have sex, and join the Republican Party.

This is not about trust, we patiently explained to her as we declined to give our permission. It's about paranoia. Deep, creeping paranoia that parents get when a child reaches the teen-age years at the same time, coincidentally, that parents become quivering lunatics.

"Wouldn't you rather stay home and watch The Little Mermaid again?" I beseeched her, forgetting for the moment how odd I look when I beseech. But she wasn't interested.

Desperate for a solid moral footing, I revealed that she is, in fact, a Southern Baptist and that God doesn't want her to dance. I would have quoted scripture supporting that point of view, but most dance references in the Bible are—can you believe it?—fairly positive.

In a related parentally crazed act, her best friend had already been given permission to attend the dance and they were hoping to go together. This weakened my argument considerably. A flurry of phone calls between our two households revealed that both sets of parents were in misery. "How could this be happening so soon!? They're only 12 and some of the boys there may be AS OLD AS 13!"

I finally settled on a compromise: My daughter could lock herself in her room and play with her pets and we'd bring up ice cream later. This got me nowhere.

"Oh, all right, you can go," we relented, "but a parent will chaperone and you have to come home an hour before the dance is over" (just in case she starts to have fun, we reasoned).

Fine, she said.

It was agreed that I'd represent the four parents, which was okay with me since I figured I could dance the whole time with my daughter anyway. (I could teach her "The Twist." Who wouldn't want to learn that?)

We arrived in front of her best friend's house, and she joined my daughter in the back seat. The other dad walked up and simply said, "How's it going?" which is parent code for, "I trust you are prepared to do anything, including acts of extreme violence, to protect these two young girls from...uh...whatever." I nodded, took a deep breath, and drove off.

Safely en route, it was now my daughter's turn to set the rules. I would let them out before we got to the school entrance. I would not walk them in. After I parked the car, I would count to 1,000 before entering the dance. When I came in, I would not look at them and I would not talk to them. Was that clear? Was I confused about any of these instructions?

We arrived and I let them out behind a large tree, so that when they stepped into the lights of the entrance it was as if they had just beamed down (from the Bad Parent Planet).

After parking the car I counted to a little less than 1,000 (three) and ran for the door, steeling myself for the unknown indignities from which I would rescue my daughter. Already I could feel my hands on the shoulders of some 13-year-old boy whose vilest intentions I would rudely and unashamedly interrupt.

THE SCENE I BEHELD was shocking. It was not what I had expected. Actually, to the rational mind, it was exactly what one would expect of 12-year-olds: All the girls were on one side of the room, all the boys were on the other side. No intermingling, no acknowledging, no anything. Nothing frightful to be seen, except for the middle-aged man standing at the door red-faced and panting from sprinting a hundred yards in the record time of 48 years. How could I have been so wrong?

There were groups of bright, engaging young girls talking and laughing comfortably together. They were a credit to their species. The boys, on the other hand, were of a slightly lower order. Ants, maybe.

In constant goofy motion, the boys surged back and forth past the dignified islands of girls. Their arms seemed to flail at random, like antennae, as they moved in search of...what? A sense of purpose? An opening line? A Gameboy?

The boys paused periodically in the snack area to rake up handfuls of pretzels. They ate a couple, tossed a couple, and dropped one in the punch bowl. "Hah!" they blurted out, quickly reaching the outer edge of their wit.

The girls, of course, were not eating. They might miss some conversation, which was mainly on two topics: school and the DJ across the room, dreadlocked and all grown up—and very good looking. Mercifully (for me), his girlfriend sat with him.

I quickly realized that I was unnecessary in that place. In fact, being in the presence of those bright young people brought out many contradictory feelings, but mainly 1) I'm going bald, and 2) I'm guessing nobody wants me to teach them "The Twist."

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