Students at This High School Don’t Choose Their Prom Dates. Here’s Why

Sweaty palms, itchy tuxes, sexual tension, and a whole lot of hairspray. This is the Prom many of us grew up with. Our experience of this adolescent milestone rested mostly on our position within the high school world order — the popular kids got dates and crowns, while the rest of us got stress acne.

But one school in Illinois has created an entirely different experience for its students, a Prom where everyone has a date and no one is left off the dance floor.

Meet Aquin High School. Population: 98. For nearly a century, the private Catholic school has held its annual Prom Draw to randomly assign dates to its students. While this might sound like an overreach of school authority, the tradition actually has complicated and kind roots: it all started with nuns. Back in the 1920s, the school was located across the street from an orphanage. Many of the orphans attended school at Aquin, but had trouble integrating with the rest of the student body. To bring them into the fold, Aquin nuns began pairing up students for the annual dance so that everyone could be a part of the celebration.

Aquin High School class of 1941, courtesy of the school.
Aquin High School class of 1941, courtesy of the school.

Today, the Prom Draw looks pretty different but operates under the same principles. “It’s about family and being really inclusive of everyone,” says senior Sam Giuffre.

On the day of the Draw, the boys all gather in the library to pick their matches while the girls convene in the gym, waiting to meet their dates. Then the draw happens lotto-style, with boys coming up one at a time to pull a classmate’s name out of a bingo barrel. The room erupts in cheers — every time, no matter who gets picked.

Once the boys have their names, they move to the gym to perform skits that ultimately reveal who they’ll be taking to the dance. (And if you’re wondering what kind of superhuman 11th graders can create theater on the spot, they actually rehearse these for weeks ahead of time.) “The work and time that they put into the skits is just incredible and very, very entertaining,” says Director of Communications Laura Diemer.

On the other hand, “the skits can be really, really awkward,” notes Giuffre. But hey, it’s high school.

Image courtesy of Aquin High School.

One of the things that struck me about the Prom Draw is that it’s traditional almost to a fault. The boys choose the girls, the boys do the asking, the girls sit and wait. What about girls who want to do skits? What about LGBTQ students?

So I asked some. Mikayla Hanson, who describes herself as pansexual, says, “It’s more non-romantic and just friends.” It’s not about coupling up like many dances. And besides, she says, “I’m quiet for the most part and everyone in my school is scared of me, so I would most likely go alone otherwise.”

Giuffre, who is openly gay, echoes that sentiment. “Being that I’m from a small class of 22 kids… we’ve been together since we were 4 years old. We’re more like siblings, more like best friends.” However, he wouldn’t mind seeing the tradition tweaked for the times. In his opinion, there’s no reason all the boys should pick names and perform skits while all the girls wait to be chosen. “You have the class clowns who love the skits and then you have the people who don’t love them, and there’s girls who are class clowns as well, and I’m sure they would love to do the skits. It just depends on where you fit.”

But the tradition, while longstanding, isn’t set in stone. As Diemer points out, each year the students vote on whether or not to continue the Prom Draw, and if they wanted to change the tradition they could vote on that as well.

Aquin hosts other dances throughout the year where students can ask whoever they want, but they just don’t have the same appeal as Prom. “The Prom has the highest participation percentage of any of our dances,” says Diemer. Ninety-eight percent of students choose to attend.

Image courtesy of Aquin High School.
Image courtesy of Aquin High School.

After Prom there’s “Post-Prom,” where “we rent out bouncy castles or mazes or laser tag or knocker ball or a hypnotist, so kids don’t go off to a party,” says Giuffre. Everything about the event seems more like elementary school than high school, and maybe that’s the beauty of it.

Like a classroom full of kids who all get valentines or birthday invites, Aquin Prom is designed for those on the fringes. “I know how it feels to be excluded,” says Giuffre. “And [I appreciate Prom Draw] because it includes everyone.”

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