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Phillip Tutor: An Alabama prom season without proms

Prom shopping

Caroline Cockrell helps Sabra Hester of Rome, Ga., try on a prom dress at the Quality Shoppe in Jacksonville on Tuesday.

Ohatchee High School has postponed its prom, and there was no other choice. Saturday was the day. But all school activities in Alabama are shut down, a byproduct of this global darkness and our profound sense of uncertainty.

“It breaks my heart to even think about it, especially for the seniors,” Bobby Tittle, the Ohatchee High principal, said Monday.

Anniston High School has postponed its prom. It was scheduled for April 11, but that date has been discarded. A new date hasn’t been set. The situation is too fluid.

“We are in uncharted waters,” Charles Gregory, the Anniston High principal, said Monday. “The times we are presently living in are causing us to make some decisions that are really not desirable for any of us.”

White Plains High School has postponed its prom, too. Once set for April 18, it’s tentatively scheduled for May 16, though there is no guarantee it will take place then, or ever. This global darkness must first lift.

And, White Plains High Principal Andy Ward said Tuesday morning, “If we were having graduation at the end of this month, we would not be having it (either).”

None of these men are insinuating that proms shouldn’t be postponed in light of the novel coronavirus outbreak and its accompanying disease, COVID-19. What’s happening on their campuses is taking place at every school and school system in Calhoun County. But they’re also passionate about a subset of Alabamians — the high school Class of 2020 — whose lives are being affected in a distinct and particularly cruel way.

Today’s seniors are seeing their final high school year upended in an abrupt swirl of postponements and cancelations that won’t be forgotten. If you don’t think that’s the case — if you believe this isn’t demoralizing to these kids — you’re astonishingly mistaken.

At their best, promenade dances are fraught with teenage angst and hormones and drama. But they are nonetheless adolescent rites-of-passage that millions of Americans remember well into adulthood; whether they’re recalled fondly or with lingering pangs of that angst is part of their charm. Even if you hated your senior prom — I still cringe over the godawful white tux I wore to mine, an outfit straight out of “Dumb and Dumber” — you never forget it. 

Ward, a White Plains lifer, remembers his junior and senior proms. One was held at Jacksonville State University; another took place on the river at Pell City. “White Plains is a special place for me,” he said. “I did graduate from here. Everything I know is in White Plains.”

Which is why the plight of the 2020 seniors resonates with him. He didn’t cause the coronavirus outbreak; he didn’t cancel classes; he didn’t force the Alabama High School Athletic Association to shut down prep sports. But he is his school’s principal. 

With the job comes that responsibility. 

“I’m trying to stay positive for the students,” he said, which seems nearly impossible. Besides the prom, White Plains has also had to cancel a school choir trip to Walt Disney World Resort, a school band trip to Washington, D.C., and a school baseball team trip to Gulf Shores. Yet, he said, “The only thing I can do is stay positive. If I’m doom and gloom, then the students become doom and gloom.”

Tittle, the Ohatchee principal, wants his seniors to experience what he calls the three “cornerstones” of their final year. They’ve already had their homecoming dance. Whether they’ll attend their prom or commencement is unknown, though he has hope. “And it breaks my heart that it’s a possibility that one or both may not happen,” he said. “We don’t control it.”

But in the same breath he mentions Hollie Patterson, the family and consumer science teacher who oversees planning for Ohatchee’s junior and senior prom.

Nothing about this is fair. 

“She has already put in numerous hours organizing it,” Tittle said, “and again numerous (more) hours because we’ve rescheduled it.”

Gregory, Anniston’s principal, was blunt when I asked if he’s confident his school would hold its commencement ceremony in late May. “To be honest with you,” he said, “the answer is that we don’t know what is going to happen in the near future.”

No one does. We’re seeing, again, that advances in science and modern medicine move at deliberate speeds, and that most of us control neither today’s realities or the long-term outcomes.

The Class of 2020, meanwhile, is at home, isolated and frustrated, wondering if this is how it will remember its senior year.

“It’s heartbreaking for me to see some of these guys and ladies upset about their (sports) seasons and proms,” Ward said. “But at the same time, you try to console them and tell them it’s for their own safety.”

Phillip Tutor — ptutor@annistonstar.com — is a Star columnist. Follow him at Twitter.com/PTutor_Star.

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