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Dancing under the stars.

A good old-fashioned graduation.

Celebrate! Celebrate? For parents of four "graduates " at their end of the year ceremony, it might seem that there was not a great deal to celebrate. These young adults had reached 21 and were leaving the relative security of school for a wider world with even more pitfalls and hazards. Yet, they were having a celebration. The sounds of their clapping and cheers resounded through the gym, bringing parents and friends to their feet to join in.

FOR SEVERAL YEARS, I realized that my son, David, would graduate from his special education program the same year that my daughter graduated from high school. I had been thinking about how to make his graduation special. I came up with the idea of a prom and graduation, mostly because this class had never had a fancy party I began talking about it with friends and family Then someone showed me a clipping from a Dallas newspaper about a prom for a special class there.

I sent the clipping to David's teacher at the beginning of his final year in school and received an enthusiastic response. In fact, at parent teacher conference time, she talked with other parents and enlisted a committee of interested parents to help. This was very important in our rural area because families with special children are widely scattered. We live 27 miles from the school David attends; other parents live equally far away in other directions.

Throughout David's school years, we have had little contact with other parents because of distance. A few sporadic attempts to organize support groups for discussion of common problems failed because it was just too far to go at night. Most of us managed to get to parent conferences but that was about the extent of our participation in the educational process.


Three months before the end of the school year, we began to meet and discuss prom plans. We found that each of us had particular talents and resources to contribute. From the beginning, it seemed logical to have the prom and graduation as part of the same event. We also wanted to make sure that each student's entire family was included in the festivities. This me keeping the costs down. We divided t e responsibilities for seeking donations for the prom and were pleasantly surprised with the results. Almost everyone we approached was very enthusiastic about supporting our project. People gave us what we needed and more ! Before we actually set out to ask for donations, the classroom teacher had to clear things with the school administration. This was no problem. In fact, they offered a small amount of funding as well as the services of the school print shop and videotaping equipment.


The prom gained a momentum of its own as we shared our successes in securing the needed supplies for the party. Although we met only once a month, we communicated actively by notes and phone calls to each other in between. We all wanted to have the students take part in preparations for the prom. At the same time, we did not want the celebration to be an extra burden to the teachers.

At an early meeting, I suggested using stars as decorations. We quickly drew up sketches and wording for invitations that were printed by the school print shop. "Dancing Under the Stars" was our theme. It was carried out in everything from the printed material through the decorations.

One mother had contacts at a radio station and offered to arrange for a disc jockey. I had been an art teacher years ago and volunteered to plan the decorations. Another mother doggedly went in search of free rental tuxedos, keeping at it until she found a men's shop that would help. The teacher had a relative who was a florist. And so it went.

By asking teachers which art supplies were still plentiful at the end of the year, I was able to plan very low cost decorations. They were not low work, however. I discovered that tempera paint and glitter were plentiful at the school. Then I went in search of large pieces of corrugated cardboard and spent months cutting huge free-form stars in my garage. I sent them to the school in batches all spring, where the students spent their free time painting them in bright colors and covering them with glitter. Everything in the classroom sparkled, as glitter coated floors, tables a the students themselves.

David kept bringing home notes asking for "More Stars." I got blisters my fingers. My garage filled up with cardboard scraps that had to be neatly bundled and sent to the recycling center. I lost count at some point: My guess is that I cut about 250 stars before I received the note that said the students were tired of painting stars and thought they had enough to decorate the gym.

Meanwhile, we were rounding up paper supplies, balloons, helium, and promises of cake, cookies and punch. The arranged for use of a gym, borrowed tables and tablecloths and chairs. We all asked around for prom dresses and received more than we could possibly use. Each girl who needed a prom dress was able to select one and have it altered to fit. The teacher sent me a beautiful blue dress in a bag with a note attached giving directions for hemming it and attaching a lace edging. All of us who could sew pitched in to help get the dresses ready. The teacher even enlisted her grandmother to help with pinning up and altering the dresses. One of the mothers found a dry cleaner who would clean and press all of the gowns for free in time for prom night

As the big day approached, I wrote a press release and sent it to the school for approval. We wanted to make sure that merchants who had donated goods and services were publicly acknowledged in area newspapers.

The occupational education teachers collected tools for decorating and lined up the scaffolding and other equipment needed to transform the gym into a ballroom. Girls who needed hairstyling were able to make appointments with students in the vocational class where cosmetology is taught.


Meanwhile, being busy was keeping those of us with sons and daughters graduating from thinking about the worries and uncertainty coming up for our families. Even though most of us had had our problems arranging a satisfactory school program for our children, school was a known factor, a fairly safe and stable element in our lives. All of us had been working on arrangements for work or other placement, but a lot of that is "hurry up and wait activity." Working on the prom and graduation carried us through some difficult times.

The night before the prom, a group of parents, teachers, and a couple of students gathered at the gym and spent a long evening struggling to do all the climbing and painting work before the students came in the morning to help finish things up. It was hard work, but we managed to keep our tempers, even as a freshly painted blue cloud fell to the gym floor and required hands and knees scrubbing of the gym floor ! On the day of the prom, the students arrived to help finish the decorating. They had made star centerpieces for each table, and they helped fill and place the helium balloons. One boy in a wheelchair was encouraged to operate the helium tank, and took pride in doing "a man's job." Others helped by patiently holding the balloons until they could be put in place. The class had their lunch on the gym floor as they finished the decorating and got ready to rehearse the ceremony.

Hearing Pomp and Circumstance at the rehearsal was my only moment of sadness. I quickly whisked David off to the barber shop and home for a nap after the rehearsal.


Nothing can describe the excitement we, the committee members, felt when we saw the gym filling with parents, friends and teachers that evening. The students in their gowns and tuxedos were looking wonderfully proud and self-confident. Each student arriving received a donated corsage or boutonniere and had his or her picture taken.

There was a brief awards ceremony for the "undergraduates," after which they lined up in the front of the gym for all to see. I was pleased to see the girl wearing the dress I had altered looking absolutely beautiful. The four "graduates" wore mortarboards with tassels from their respective home schools, and received diplomas from their schools. There were no long speeches, just a few words from their teachers. We felt proud, not sad, to see those four standing tall and shaking hands as they received their diplomas.


But, the best was yet to come. After the ceremony and refreshments, the disc jockey set up his equipment which included fancy lights and a mirrored revolving ball. When he was ready to begin, he introduced the first song, Celebrate! The whole class rushed to the dance floor, cheering and clapping, ready to dance. Those of us watching were overwhelmed.

We had expected to have to coax these young people to dance, and had given strict instructions to brothers and sisters to get out there and make sure everyone got a chance to dance. Instead, they danced and danced and danced. Most of them never sat down for a moment. They asked their teachers, friends, parents, brothers, sisters, and complete strangers to dance. Watching it, I felt that they had saved up all the fun young people usually have at parties and were compressing it into one night. The enthusiasm was contagious, and the disc jockey was extremely skillful at helping maintain the level of fun and excitement. The Syracuse newspaper sent a photographer and reporter to the prom and they spent a couple of hours taking pictures and interviewing the students and parents. The next day, their story appeared on the front page with pictures ! The prom ended at 10 p.m. Most of us had quite a distance to go home, and, frankly, we were tired. The students had partied hard enough that they were ready to call it quits too. The prom ended with the same popular song, Celebrate! It was the perfect ending for an event for which we all could be proud. As we did some cleaning up and turned in the rented tux that evening, people were already talking about next year's prom.

I am sure the students will remember this occasion all their lives. The parents will all have their special memories too - seeing the boy in the wheelchair dancing every dance with volunteers pushing his chair, seeing kids who are normally quiet and withdrawn laughing and asking each other to dance - this was a high point in our lives, a true celebration.

Nancy Lewis is development director for the Gallery Association of New York State, Inc. She lives in Hamilton, N.Y. with her husband, Dave, and their three children, David, 23, Nina, 19, and Carl, 16.
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Title Annotation:graduation prom for special education graduates
Author:Lewis, Nancy
Publication:The Exceptional Parent
Date:Jan 1, 1990
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