CEDAR RAPIDS — Prom night at Xavier High School was nearly empty and nearly silent, save for the whir of lights and the dim sounds escaping from the DJ’s headphones.
“Welcome to Xavier Prom 2020,” Troy Williams, aka DJ Commando, said to a camera that was focused on him for a livestreamed virtual prom Saturday night.
On the other side of the feed were many of the high school juniors and seniors who otherwise would have been dancing closely that night at the private Catholic High School in Cedar Rapids. Instead, they were at home at their dinner tables and on their couches.
Congregating in the school gym to crown a prom king and queen, like all school gatherings this spring, was made impossible by the coronavirus pandemic.
The only people actually at prom were the DJ, the camera-shy principal, the school’s communications director and a producer. They aired a pre-produced reveal of the prom king and queen — Nick Fischer and Cate Tucker — before jumping to a live feed of Principal Angela Olson in a Zoom meeting with three teachers and a student.
“Mrs. Moses, you have any requests for the night?” she asked into her laptop, while Jerry Brown, of Blue Sky Productions and a Xavier dad, crawled behind her chair to invisibly adjust her sound levels.
After Communications Director Nick Ireland threw the feed to DJ Commando, she sighed: “There are a lot of things we’ve never done before that are happening this year.”
For students, too, virtual prom wasn’t something they could have imagined.
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Watching from home in shorts and a T-shirt, Tucker said it didn’t feel quite real watching her photo pop up on a screen to reveal she’d won prom queen, an announcement that usually would be made in a gym packed with teachers, families and her friends.
But she was “more excited than sad,” Tucker said, and was glad to share the moment with her parents and siblings.
“I couldn’t have imagined a global pandemic would hit,” she said. “But it happens.”
Fischer was similarly casual when he found out he was the Class of 2020’s prom king.
“My mom tried to make me dress up,” he said genially. “I said no.”
Back at school, Ireland and Brown were switching from shots of the DJ to ones of the Zoom meeting, where teachers and their own children were dancing to songs by Bruno Mars, Lizzo and Fergie. A handful of students joined the Zoom meeting, partying on their back porches or in their bedrooms.
Emily Moses, an English teacher, turned disco lights on in her living room and lip synced throughout the 90-minute feed.
“It was nice teachers cared enough to take their time and do that,” said Taylor Coestar, who was on prom court. “It was weird watching it instead of being a part of it, but I’m glad we got to do something for it.”
For the “Cha-cha Slide,” Ireland ran out to do the choreographed dance with Williams, who was, until then, sliding to the left all by himself on the livestream.
“My kids are going to be so embarrassed,” he said, returning to the production room.
Even online, some parts of prom remained the same. When a student appeared on the livestream in a black dress with a slit up the side, Olson lovingly scolded her. Ireland sweated over the lyrical contents of T-Pain’s “Apple Bottom Jeans.” Teachers, in a chat room, wished they had a drink.
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“It was a nice way to have a little bit of closure to our senior year,” said Ella Schulte, another member of court. “Even though we didn’t expect it to be this way, it was nice to have that moment with everybody.”
And virtual prom, she added, was a unique opportunity for her older family members. Her grandparents, who wouldn’t have been able to physically travel to her school, were some of nearly 150 people who watched.
Despite losing many of the senior year experiences they planned to have this year, Ireland — who let out a big sigh of relief when the prom livestream wrapped around 8:15 p.m. — said he’s been struck by students’ response to the pandemic and related cancellations.
“Quite frankly, I think they’ve been more resilient than some of the adults during this time,” he said. “ … They’re coping with some of these heartbreaking moments that they’re not being able to experience, and still finding a way to move forward and find joy in some of these unexpected areas. It gives me hope that they’re going to be OK.”
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