Nobody looks worse than they do on the day of their school formal. Perhaps, maybe, the exception is the day you are laid out for the mortician, but even then, a more delicate shade of blue eye shadow is usually applied. The formal is one of those rare events for which so much energy is poured into looking incredibly radiant and naturally beautiful that almost always, the opposite is achieved. “Put on a little more spray tan”, one friend might say to another over a pre-party primer of Malibu & Coke, “People might still be able to tell the real colour of your skin”. “Pass me that curler,” a girl may demand, staring at the mirror with the intense kind-of focus she lacked in her final exams, “These blonde-highlighted hair extensions don’t quite resemble the dags hanging off a ewe’s arse”. A boy might sit at the table with his father and ask “Should I go with the white suit with the snakeskin tie or the fluorescent green pimp suit with the feathered fedora? I don’t know what’ll work best here in 21st century regional Queensland”. A class formal photo in the country looks like a collection of nominees, if the Daytime Emmy’s gave an award for Best Performance by a Teenager who looks like a mid-forties Soap Opera star.
Some girls spend months organising the colour of their dress - “You can’t wear Cerulean Blue, Diane. I am wearing Cerulean Blue. You’ve known that for months. Besides, you’ll look like a fat bitch” – not to mention the feuds over accessories - “If you wear a mini tiara too, I’ll kill myself. I will. I’ll fucking kill myself”. While many of the boys pretend to be nonchalant about their appearance, they too look for a suit months in advance, hoping to uncover the perfect pinstripe to compliment their gelled hair and frosted tips that are “actually very in-fashion, okay?”.
I secretly knew the fact I’d learnt how to tie a Windsor knot especially for my formal would turn the most heads. “Look at that Windsor knot” they’d whisper to each other over the canapés. “No wonder he’s going to uni”.
I once saw a formal video in which a girl was carried to the venue by four Samoan men. I was driven there in my mum’s Mitsubishi XS Tourer. From there, I merely walked into the venue, with none of the fuss and pomp I’d seen in my years of watching American prom films. In those films, the students always glide down a large staircase looking like a screen star in Hollywood’s golden era. But our venue didn’t have a staircase. In fact, the largest staircase of any public place in St George was the stairs leading up to the council building and even then, there’s nothing terribly glamorous about descending down four steps.
A few students had already arrived and paced around the St George Cultural Centre foyer, anxiously awaiting the night to truly arrive. For a moment, I found myself standing with a girl from my grade, with whom I had something of a hate/hate relationship. If there was ever a time for formal niceties, there’d be no nicer time than...well...the formal. “Hi Prue. I like your dress” I lied. I’d always prided myself on my ability to lie to a person’s face, but perhaps her nose for bullshit was her most sincere talent. “Your pimples look nice with your suit” she replied with a grin, her eyes batting dutifully as if there were anything behind them. Prue was an evangelical Christian and, on a daily basis, participated in the evangelical Christian tradition of having great disdain for the world around her. This was the same girl who’d argued that homosexuals should be stoned and refugees shot. When we’d comforted a classmate after a friend of hers took his own life, Prue chimed in with an upbeat “Oh, never mind. He’s in limbo now”. On another occasion, when the tuckshop served a one-off special of fried rice, Prue could be heard lamenting “What is with all this ethnic stuff anyway? This is Australia! Meat pies! Sausage Rolls!”. I neglected to tell her at the time, but the tuckshop also regularly served something known as a “Pizza Rounder” - a bastardised, microwavable interpretation of a Calzone. Such an Italian delicacy on the menu flying under her radar may have induced such a rage it would cause her to throw a Molotov Cocktail through the tuckshop’s rickety screen door. However the Molotov was invented by the Finnish, so no doubt, she’d have avoided it too.
Last I heard, she’d married off, had kids and had gone into childcare - sadly not as a child, but as a Carer. Of course, a child’s mind is compared to a sponge, absorbing the knowledge of those who most surround it. Such a reassuring thought for all the mums and dads to ponder when next on the lookout for a place in their local crèche.
Everyone pretended to be the best of friends at the actual formal event – a striking departure from the days leading up to the function and a concept that made me weirdly uncomfortable, despite my own out-of-character complimentary behaviour early in the evening. A professional photographer from out of town had set up a portrait corner, draped in deep-blue velvet, I assume to give the photographic memories of that night that classic North American brothel feel. I was asked to be in a photo with my friends Ben and Katrina – “the acting crowd”. As card-carrying veterans of the high school acting community, they asked us to strike “zany” “offbeat” and “hilarious” poses for the camera. Katrina knelt with her hands held high, like a cheerleader who’d just successfully somersaulted to a big finish. Ben stood on her left, hands cupped around his mouth, as if bellowing like a frightened coach on the sidelines. I held one hand out like a humiliated robot about to shake someone’s hand. I didn’t really get it. They didn’t ask me for a second photo.
We made our formal entrance amongst family and friends, striding in through the front doors, alone. Years of petty fighting over formal partners had exhausted the teachers and caused the school to abandon the tradition of students pairing-up with a random member of the opposite sex. The rest of the night, however, was strictly traditional. We cut the cake. We ate a meal of meats and defrosted vegetables from a bain-marie. We danced an official dance to Peaches & Herb’s camp disco hit “Shake Your Groove Thing”. I’d failed to completely memorise the choreography that consisted of all but six movements. Athletes and academics sashayed past as I waddled along, doing my best impression of what I thought a dancing human may look like. Tables were pushed to the walls and the adults joined us to waltz the night away to a married musical duo in their late sixties, who had been hired after previously thrilling a lively crowd at September’s Anglican Diocese Ball. They played the sexy, modern hits for us celebratory teens – from Buddy Holly’s “Peggy Sue” all the way to the floor-humping beats of Eddie Cantor’s 1925 Number #1 hit “If You Knew Susie”. By the time the pair hit percussion on the musical washboard, the cleaners were busy stacking chairs.
The after party was held at a student’s property just off the main road on the outskirts of town. Set up by the riverbank, there was the obligatory bonfire and a portaloo and eskies of all shapes, with XXXX and Bundy Rum and Passionfruit UDL’s all floating in miniature pools of melted ice.
I sat beside the river for hours with my friend Ben and an entertaining girl who’d graduated years ago and had turned up at the party “just because”. She’d been living in the city and had travelled and was worldly. I tried to keep up and spoke of things I’d never read and things I’d never seen and though enjoying the odd serenity of adolescent drunkenness and country music radio, I stared across the murky brown waters of the Balonne River for a long while, slightly cut-off from the revelry. I was surprised at how unfulfilled I felt in that moment. It must be what people who run the 400 metre track race in the Olympics feel like. Sure, they’d made the distance, but what was the point if they ended up where they’d started?*
I did what I always do when surrounded by people with nothing to say at all. I drank. I drank everything I’d brought with me. Then I drank something someone else had brought. It was blue. Then I called it a night relatively early. Others stayed to see morning, but I summoned Ben, who was staying in town with me and we walked home – all eight kilometres home. No less than three cars offered us a lift into town, but I waved each and every one on their way. “We’re fine,” I answered for both of us, as if I were so entitled. “We love walking!”. I stumbled past the town grave yard, stepping in a ditch, before pissing against a gate. We finally made it into town, touching pavement. I ran a stick against the fences of teacher accommodation shared by young school staff, waking their dogs before scurrying down the block and around the corner, home and out of sight.
The morning after the formal, everyone looked luminous. We were allowed a late start to the school day. Everyone arrived around 11:45am, their skin ruddy from hot showers and abrasive make-up wipes, their clothes fresh from dryers and hair, pulled back and lazily tussled, speaking volumes of sexual misadventures and, in my case, the misadventures of going home and watching comedy DVD’s in my pyjamas. We sat in a demountable building sitting alongside the Science Block - a building usually reserved for the kids of the Special Education Unit. It was apt, as unbeknownst to us, we’d be receiving a special kind of education that day too; “special”, as in unwelcome and hostile.
As a post-formal, pre-graduation activity, the principal had organised a self-defense seminar, hosted by a local Taekwondo enthusiast, whose eyes constantly darted around the room, as if she were Sarah Palin and we were the wide-eyed mother’s of Bambi, just doing the damn best we could there in the wilderness. As she addressed the class, we lay our heads against various items of furniture in our immediate vicinity, hoping, rather foolishly, that we’d perhaps blend into the plastic chairs or laminate-top desks. A few well-mannered students joined the activities, kicking and thrusting to the choreography of their leader. She looked around at the students, like me, nursing hangovers with unreserved pity. What a sad and sorry bunch she must have seen. Could we not all be cast in her mould? Would my generation ever work hard enough to witness the success she’d experienced, rising up to the ranks of part-time/casual receptionist at a rural Doctor’s office? She needed to speak up. It was her moment, her time. She cast her eyes around, locking with any pair that dare meet hers. She directed her permanent frown at me, while saying to the group “Y’know, when youse kids go the big smoke or wherever your movin’ to and your walkin’ home from some nightclub...” Wow, the lady really had me pegged. She continued, “Youse might be cornered by some big guys and then you’ll regret that you didn’t listen to me!”
I took her words to my gut, punched, wounded, winded and paralysed for a few minutes. I imagined that day she described, walking home idly from a nightclub, before being pounced upon by inner-city ruffians. I imagined laying there in a gutter, actually winded and paralysed this time, blood trickling into a storm drain from a gash on my head. I imagined losing consciousness, eyes rolling back into my skull and the final dying thought, “No regrets. No regrets”.
*Although, to be fair, Cathy Freeman looked pretty damn pleased with herself when she finished in 2000.
+Names have been changed to protect the innocent and myself, for forgetting their real names.