Old prom tradition gives meaning to blind dates

NATIONAL CLOSEUP

April 20, 1992|By Eric Zorn | Eric Zorn,Chicago Tribune

FREEPORT, Ill. -- Guy Evans was the first to walk the lonely mile -- about 50 interminable yards, actually -- between the library and the cafeteria of Aquin Central Catholic High School the other afternoon.

In his hand was a slip of paper bearing the name of a girl, Jeniffer Pohill, and on his mind was a mission: to ask her to next month's prom.

Young Evans, a junior, had just moments earlier drawn Miss Pohill's name out of a milk crate to begin Aquin Central's extraordinary, highly stylized annual prom ritual.

For 66 years in this town 25 miles west of Rockford, the boys of Aquin Central have chosen their prom dates by blind draw. And for 66 years they have then screwed up their courage and marched unaccompanied into a room filled with giggling, expectant girls.

When Guy pushed through the swinging wooden doors and proceeded down a runway defined by crepe paper and balloons, he found that, in accordance with recent custom, all 26 girls had covered their faces with paper bags and wrapped themselves in bedsheets to make it that much harder to tell them apart. The boys have to rely on sounds, any visible identifying characteristics.

A half-dozen parents videotaped the scene from the perimeter, a panel of teachers at a table busily kept track of the matches, and scattered alumni looked on with nostalgic envy.

"This is so exciting," said Leslie Schauer, who graduated last year. "It's like nothing any other school does."

The tradition began in the 1920s when children from a nearby orphanage attended Aquin and the school wanted to be sure all students were on an equal social footing at the year-end dance.

The orphanage closed decades ago, but the date-selection process continued. Students have resoundingly rejected occasional suggestions that the school hold a conventional prom, according to Principal Daryl McManus.

"The idea is that everyone who wants to should be able to go to the prom," said Mr. McManus. "Shy kids and unpopular kids don't feel excluded."

It may sound quaint, dull and unromantic, but the school was electric in anticipation the day of selection. Many of the boys jangled their knees and clutched roses waiting in the library while the girls buzzed excitedly in the cafeteria about who might get whom.

The party line is that prom dates at Aquin are strictly platonic.

"Just fun with friends," said senior Paul Klaus as he waited for the drawing -- but the woofing and high-fives among the boys in the library and squeals and blushes among the girls seated cross-legged in a semicircle in the cafeteria revealed that even random and obligatory dating offers a full range of dreams and disappointments.

In 1947, after all, Jim Pifer drew the name of Marilyn McGinn, then a stranger to him, and they ended up married.

On the down side, sophomore Julie Grenoble was mortified this year to end up matched with her sister's ex-boyfriend.

And she couldn't say no. The rule, as presiding teacher Bill

Pospischil reminded both genders in advance of the drawing, is that the boy must ask and the girl must accept. Then the pair must go to a pre-prom party, dinner and the dance together, and at the dance, each person's dance card must be filled.

When the numbers of boys and girls are not even, sophomore girls or alumni boys are recruited to make up the difference.

The anxiety, therefore, is all front-loaded. A confused and nervous Guy Evans looked from paper bag to paper bag trying to recognize his date, but the girls had also wrapped themselves in bedsheets to complete their disguises.

Guy was in street clothes, although some of the young men who came after him wore costumes, including a boy in a flasher's raincoat and one in a bulldog suit who was carried in in a coffin.

After young Evans had suffered long enough, the girls removed their bags. He spotted Jeniffer Pohill, approached her shyly, bent to one knee and said the words that boys elsewhere must agonize over for months: "Will you go to prom with me?"

And even though her answer was guaranteed, the words were as sweet as this little custom frozen in time at this little school.

"Yes," she said. "I will."

Roger Simon is on vacation. His column will resume May 6.

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