“Ms Moore! What’ssssss’up?!” I squinted to recognize the sweaty student as he careened past me. His hair stood in spikes, his white shorts and T-shirt shone with sweat, and gold chains swung from his neck. Maybe I would have recognized him had my attention not snapped to the mini-skirt wearing girl on his arm. Was that Julie? I thought, incredulous. Front-row-sitter-who-never-speaks-out-of-turn-and-always-has-something-intelligent-to-say Julie?! I graduated just over a decade ago myself, but I was suddenly and acutely conscious of having entered unfamiliar territory: a high school dance in the era of ubiquitous music videos and barely-there clothing. Brace yourself, I muttered.
The place smelled of bodies. From my spot against the wall I could see beads of moisture misting the colourful darkness: colourful from the multi-hued strobe lights, dark because all the regular lights were off – a gift for teachers who were spared the sight of students’ shimmying and shaking.
“Can you believe this?” I asked another supervising teacher. I felt alarmed at all the flesh sweating and jiggling and grinding and swaying and heaving and sliding and bumping and bouncing around me.
Directly in front, but a comfortable ten feet away, an anxious knot of Grade 8s, the babies of the school, clustered. While dancing, they would occasionally glance coolly over their shoulders at the Grade 9s. The Grade 9s spent a lot of time moving importantly around the gym, not getting too close to the Grade 8s but not yet comfortable enough to join the Grade 10s. The Grade 10s, apparently content with their spot in the middle of the ranks, danced in groups but with lots of pairing off. Every few seconds or so one of the boys and one of the girls would press against each other and grind to the floor looking pleased with themselves. The Grade 11s and 12s were difficult to see; they danced in a dark corner of the gym I wasn’t brave enough to visit.
“Is this normal?” I asked the other teacher.
“Yup,” he chuckled. “Welcome.”
Surveying the crowd, I noticed Kevin, a boy with autism in my Grade 10 class. Kevin had no speech and limited abilities to communicate. He had just begun using a machine which speaks words as he types them. His parents ensure Kevin has every opportunity to socialize and learn, and this dance presented one of those opportunities.
“There he goes again,” said my fellow supervisor, nodding towards Kevin.
“Yeah, I was just noticing. Why is he walking around like that?”
“He does that at every dance. Makes him more comfortable in all this chaos, I guess. Having no structure is disorienting, so he walks around the gym’s perimeter which gives him a pattern to hold on to but still lets him be part of the action.”
“I notice that nobody picks on him.”
“Nope. But then, these kids have been going to school together since pre-school. They all know Kevin; it’s nothing new.”
An awkward looking Grade 8 student walked past me, and I noticed many others walking around in a way that suggested they were busy looking for someone – maybe a ruse to avoid a situation for which they were obviously not ready: sweaty dancing with intimidating peers. Kevin was one of the few who looked comfortable, not the least bit self-conscious.
The rap beat stopped and a slow song oozed from the speakers. In a frantic rush, students scrambled to find a dance partner – any dance partner. Senior students in the corner used the slow song as an opportunity to make out with their partners. The Grade 10s paired up, and I had to glance away when I saw one of my students bending awkwardly to place his arms around a girl much shorter than he. The boy made sure to maintain space between her body and his as they stepped side to side almost in time to the music.
Adolescence looks complicated from the sidelines – more complicated than many of us remember. While we teachers focus on our lessons, our students are experiencing life’s bigness for the first time. Remember the day you gave your heart to someone for the first time and got it back damaged? The day you worked your absolute best at something, but failed anyway? The day you realized the people you love won’t live forever?
As the dance swayed to a close, my colleague and I looked at one another with raised eyebrows: “We made it.” We made it through dance supervision, but we also made it through our own high school experiences, relatively confident in our ability to learn, improve, and succeed in life and relationships. We were among the lucky ones.
As I left the stickiness of the gym and drove home, leaving the loud music, the gyrating students, and the insecurities of a high school dance behind, I resolved to be more mindful about using my subject matter to empower students with the tools for life’s tough situations and the confidence to use them.
Brooke Moore teaches English and Writing at Rockridge Secondary in West Vancouver, B.C. She would like to note that the dance she writes about here occurred a number of years ago; since then the Leadership 11 students at Rockridge have been working to connect with the Grade 8s. One of their most successful initiatives has been to help the young students feel more comfortable and confident in situations such as these.