Prom Night for Our Special Needs Students – How We Brought a Little Magic to a Difficult School Year

Mary McLaughlin
Special Education Teacher

When we were at the early heights of the pandemic, I was granted a transfer from my long-held elementary special education gig to one at my district's high school. I would go from working with students who were, for the most part, in need of significant academic support to working with kids in need of physical support as well as functional academic and behavioral supports. This was all new for me. Since the entire world was in upheaval and we were going to be on-site and in-person with the students, it seemed like a good time for me to make this shift. Might as well have everything new all at once!

With no idea of who my students were going to be, I read through their records to learn as much as I could about who they were and what needs they had. Because it's a small community, getting in touch with their former teacher was easy.

New School Year, New School and New Protocols… But Certain Longstanding Realities Don't Change

Our year started a bit precariously but only because we were working to find our routine. Covid-19 protocols said one thing. Special education realities said another: masks on? Maybe… Three feet or more apart? Probably not… Staying in an assigned spot? Psssht, NO.

All "My Guys" were adjusting well to having a new teacher. That was a win. Their parents were warm and welcoming of me. Win.

My lessons of cooking, working on basic computer skills, household task skill building were appealing to My Guys. Win.

Being outdoors to learn, and arranging their desks to form communal groups while still observing social distance were successful. Win.

Parents thrilled, administration quietly watching. Win'ish (when admin watches quietly, it can be unnerving even for the most seasoned of professionals).

Once we were handed a district-wide events calendar. I glanced at it, making note of all the relevant dates…none of which were relevant to My Guys except one. There it was, shouting at me from the paper. I could hear the DJ in my mind. I could see the glitter and fog from the fog machine, and the prismed glints of light from the disco ball…PROM!

The shining letters of the very word glittered and sparkled like rhinestone-laden prom dresses. We were going to prom and that was just going to be THAT.

During the school year, we discussed it with parents. Enthusiasm, happiness and tears, complete with virtual high fives. An understanding that their sons' new teacher had an entirely different sense of who these kids are - individuals as unique as any other… and at the same time, young men living the shared experience that comes in this time of life just like any other.

Keeping in mind that The Virus had a mind of its own, we all knew prom may or may not end up happening. If it did, we'd be ready. If it didn't, we would be disappointed. But in a year full of loss and diminished activity, we were all accustomed to living in a wait-and-see mode.

About three weeks ago, our state made the announcement that the mask mandate would be lifted. Prom was deemed a "go." I texted the mama who decided to have her son go and told her to get that tux fitted. Together with our always-observing-but-never-condemning administration, we created a plan to make sure everyone would have the time of their lives.

This One Night at Prom…

Last night at prom, I saw something special in action. Grab a tissue. This is gonna get great!

As prom week finally rolled upon us, I was completely done with my annual review meetings and able to completely lose myself in prom preparations. In the world of special education, the annual review period can be a high stress and busy time with data collecting, writing, appointment-setting, and meetings. To be done with my meetings this early AND before prom was - this was a true delivery of happy karma from all the years I front-loaded the work. Now I get to enjoy the payoff that comes from all that time I spent "busier than a one-legged man in a butt-kicking contest," as Dolly Parton so eloquently put it.

One of our students and his family decided prom was exactly what they wanted to do. They rented a snazzy tux complete with a bow-tie in a pop of color to reflect his happy and fun personality. His brand new tennis shoes fit this same fashion ticket and served him well, given his gait issues.

Mom and Dad were ready to be his dates and arranged a before-prom photo shoot with their family photographer.

At the appointed time, we met in our classroom to stage in a familiar place. We took casual photos, did a walk-through of the Grand March, laughed and cried. Why? Well, because it's just not common for kids with profound disabilities to GO TO PROM.

Yes, legally they are welcomed. Socially, not so much.

But things are different here.

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Giving Our Special Needs Students the Experiences Every Young Person Deserves to Have

Prom is a rite of passage for most high school students. It is definitely an event that evokes emotions-both good and bad-for many. Depending on how it goes, it can either be completely magic, or the stuff future therapy sessions are made of.

Last night, I was blown away. I was so pleased to participate and see, first-hand how a community can come together to embrace everyone.

Prom dresses are loaned out if buying one isn't financially feasible for a family. Tuxedo rentals are underwritten by private anonymous donors. Decorations are delivered free of charge by alumni who want to contribute to the conviviality of the evening.

Time and talents are donated by the staff and students. Making things as perfect and safe as possible is the goal. A community coming together, uniting for one purpose: to give kids a great time…kids who have had a really uniquely challenging couple of school years.

Our school does a Grand March. In this long-standing tradition, individuals or couples are introduced, walk out on stage, and a waiting group of family members and other ticket-wielding onlookers applaud the prom-goers.

Dressed in their prom best, their official photo is taken (for free). It is their moment to shine, to feel wonderful, to feel good for so many reasons. Beaming family members look on and are courteous in their delivery of accolades. It's not about whose family is loudest. It's about honoring a moment in the life of a student.

When it was time for My Guy to take center stage, it was clear that he was ready.

When you teach special ed, you become a pro at having not only Plan A and Plan B, but back-up plans all the way through Z…then you start into the numbers. We were ready to support him for his moment no matter what it took to do so, even if it meant NOT doing the march at all if that's what he decided.

Our Plan A went off without a hitch. My Guy was placed at the front of the Grand March line. He was first. It was his moment. He would lead the March, front and center. For students at schools where special needs classrooms are housed in the back wing of a building and forgotten about by most faculty and students, this moment would never happen. This guy…THIS GUY had spent his entire academic career in this district where things are done differently. Everyone knew him, and everyone was so excited for him to have his time in the spotlight.

Flanked by his parents, My Guy's name was called. I started to cry as I looked on from the wings of the auditorium. There he stood, a bit overwhelmed by it all but with his mom and dad holding his hands, he looked at the glitz and glamour, taking it all in. Instant applause erupted when his name was called. There wasn't a dry eye in the house. Never before have I witnessed one of my students being cherished so intensely by any audience. It penetrated deep into my weary soul, creating an energy so intensely happy that all I could do was smile from ear to ear…and cry.

Those happy tears were lifted from the well of my realization that they will have all the experiences they deserve if we just encourage and support them… at my school, that well is full and you don't have to go deep to find it.

A Community Coming Together for Special Needs Students is a Profound and Beautiful Thing

So why am I making such a big deal about it? What is so unique about all of this? Do I think My Guy was excited to go to prom? Yes, a little bit. Do I think it may have been overwhelming for him at a sensory level? Yes, a little bit. Did we have exit strategies in place to keep him feeling safe and happy? Of course!

What people fail to realize is that these moments in the life of a student aren't always about the student; they're also for the parents.

Special needs parents, those whose children will never live independently, who are medically fragile, who aren't always accepted by their social circles because they don't do life the same way…these parents can, and often do, feel alone, isolated, lonely. They can feel rejected. They often turn inward and forget about what other kids are doing because they know theirs may not be able to handle it, or because schools won't modify their plan to accommodate their child to this extent. They grieve a future they had conjured during pregnancy, but have since had to let go. It seemed too distant. It seemed to hard. It seemed like it was more important to live in the moment of assuring the safety and well-being of their child. The dream of attending a prom took a back seat to being certain their child's IEP would be honored.

From first-hand experience as the mother of an adult son with special needs, I will tell you that those school years can be a very lonely place. Mourning the loss of things other families take for granted. It's not because we're jealous. It's because it breaks our hearts to know what our kids are missing out on.

The dreams of your kid learning to drive, going to prom, going to college, playing varsity sports, getting married, giving you grandchildren…those are no longer dreams you get to have. They evaporate away and as you begin to create a new normal, one full of coping mechanisms and strategies, caregivers and care plans, survival becomes the goal. Occasionally you might meet another special needs family and strike up a friendship. Sometimes you might get together but mostly you don't because, for whatever reason, the kids can't always "do" it so it's just easier not to.

For those parents, for My Guy's parents, this one night needed to happen. It needed to be special. It needed to be flexible and have modifications. It needed to be okay if it did happen. It needed to be okay if it didn't happen. It needed to be okay if a proverbial rip cord needed to be pulled to get out of a situation which would be upsetting. But oh, how hard I prayed that it would go off without a hitch!

…and it did.

What was so great about prom for this special education student? Probably that he got to hang out with mom and dad and that he got new shoes. What was so great about prom for me? Seeing how my school community warmly, kindly, and genuinely cared enough to do whatever it took to make My Guy's night the greatest it could be. It was seeing the audience give My Guy, and his parents, an applause and ovation that his mom and dad will remember for a lifetime. It was knowing that I live and work in a community where, even though we've got our issues, everyone in the school community matters. Everyone is welcome regardless of your ability or differing ability.

Reflecting On the Winding Down of Great Joy - The Lasting Impact Could Be Profound in its Own Right

Today, this day after the festivities, finds my heart full of that special feeling that only other teachers will understand. It's that feeling of deep-seeded happiness which lifts us up, which bolsters and invigorates us to continue with work that needs to be done. We are all tired. It has been a very long year that's had us dealing with the unknown and changing a lot of our instructional routines and maneuvering through new technologies.

These things, this prom- it's what we do to love and educate our children AND their families. We connect, we inspire, we push boundaries and norms. We give love to encourage their success and see them through challenges. We help their families find community and if they don't, we give them these rare and precious moments. We make our world better at its core. We contribute positively to encouraging the entire community to be its best. It can be exhausting. It is definitely exhilarating!

As our school year winds down, it may feel in many ways like this year has not been effective. I would disagree.

Stories from everywhere remind us that teachers are the first line of defense, first line of offense, the coaches, the champions.

Finish out this year with a strongly positive attitude and a belief that we-you-are making an impact even during what could be one of the most challenging school years of our lives. In whatever way your school celebrates your students, make sure every single student gets their moment to shine!

Then, in the quiet hours of time alone, you take your moment and shine, quietly radiate your love and compassion, just like you always do. You deserve it so richly.

If you chaperone at your school's prom, remember My Guy and his parents. Remember their joy and pay it forward. Then take off those uncomfortable shoes.

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