All Dressed Up (With Nowhere to Go)

“My dress arrived at the end of February, and then, well, Covid”: how Toronto grads are celebrating prom this year

By Courtney Shea| Photography by Daniel Neuhaus
| June 25, 2020

Covid has been rough on everyone, but for the class of 2020, finishing high school during a global pandemic involved missing out on a whole bunch of milestones, including graduation and a certain adolescence-defining dance. Here, eight Grade 12 students discuss the ins and outs of socially distanced proms, look forward to the fall and flaunt their fashion. Because the world is in chaos, but the perfect prom dress is a terrible thing to waste.

Olivia, 20

School: SOLE Alternative Next up: Interactive systems design at the University of Saskatchewan Most likely to: Be a CEO

“My high school career has been unusual. Three years ago, I moved from Toronto to B.C. to attend Pearson College. They have a really prestigious International Baccalaureate program, and I had a great experience there. But as I was about to enter my final year, I had a change of heart and realized that I wanted to study science, which meant repeating a year to get the pre-reqs for university. I came back to Toronto and enrolled at SOLE, an alternative school for students on a less traditional tract.

“I was only there for a year, so it’s not like I had a super-tight group of friends, but I was definitely looking forward to going to prom. I was planning to make my own dress inspired by something I saw on Next In Fashion on Netflix. When Covid hit, I had already been to a couple of stores looking for just the right fabric—I wanted a kind of mesh-tulle thing in lilac or red. That was a bummer, but I’ve also had some good news. In late March, I found out that I had been awarded the Schulich Leader Scholarship, an $80,000 award that goes toward studying science at the University of Saskatchewan. I wasn’t sure I had a shot, But my guidance counsellor helped me get all my paperwork together—thanks, Karin! And I got it! My parents are both U of S grads, so they couldn’t be happier. We weren’t able to celebrate much during isolation, but we ordered Thai food and I called my guidance counsellor. I’ve had friends and family ask, ‘This is such exciting news, why haven’t you posted about it on social media?' I guess it just feels weird to be celebratory with so much going on in the world. There’s a pandemic, and now we’re seeing all this with Black Lives Matter. It’s exciting, but it’s also really overwhelming.

"My dress arrived at the end of February, and then, well, Covid": How Toronto grads are celebrating prom this year

“I was passionate about studying science before Covid, but now I’m even more excited about it. I’m really into agriculture and urban farming, and the pandemic has definitely shown us how vulnerable our food supply chains are. I can’t wait to learn more and have this chance to make a contribution. At this point I don’t know if I’ll be going anywhere in September. It’s definitely frustrating: I’m finally ready to go to university, and now it’s like the universe doesn’t want me to.”

 


Bela and Luca, both 17

School: William Lyon Mackenzie CI Next up: Health Sciences and Engineering at McMaster (both) Most likely to: Win an Oscar (Bela); start the next SpaceX (Luca)

Bela: “We’ve been together for two years, so we definitely knew we were going to prom together.” Luca: “I wanted to make my promposal really special. People really go all out at our school. Last year a guy brought a live goat to school and asked, ‘Will you goat to prom with me?' I wasn’t sure how I was going to top that, but I was thinking about it. I wanted to involve an animal. And a box of doughnuts. That’s as far as I’d gotten when Covid happened and everything changed.” Bela: “Some of our other friends who are couples would sneak visits, but we were really strict, especially at the beginning. I am a cancer survivor, so I’m vulnerable. We did a couple of visits in Luca’s driveway. My parents were in the car, so it wasn’t really the same as being on our own. For the last month or so we’ve been hanging out in each other’s backyards, so that’s been amazing.” Luca: “When we’re not together, we’re still texting and talking on the phone all the time.” Bela: “We had our two-year anniversary on March 26. We had been planning to go to a restaurant. Instead we had a Zoom date. We both got dressed up. We were planning on making the same meal and then eating it together, but that didn’t really work out.”

"My dress arrived at the end of February, and then, well, Covid": How Toronto grads are celebrating prom this year

Luca: “We both live with our families so it was just too complicated. But it was still really great. I made Bela a crossword about out relationship. So, one of the clues was, ‘Harbourfront picnic snack.’ And the answer was strawberries.” Bela: “Because we went to Harbourfront once and bought some strawberries at a produce stand.” Luca: “It sucks that we don’t get to have the special moments we’ve been looking forward to for a long time. But people have been getting creative about how to mark the end of year.” Bela: “We’re both pretty excited for next year, though. We’re both going to McMaster. Everyone assumes that we chose the same school on purpose, but we’d made a promise not to tell each other where we were going because we didn’t want to be influenced.” Luca: “And then we both chose the same. I swear! We were both planning to live on campus for first year, but not together. We both wanted that first-year experience and to meet new people.” Bela: “Now I don’t know if we’ll be having our first year on campus at all. The first semester is definitely going to be online, and we’ll both stay at home at least until January. My parents and everyone else always talked about first year—Frosh Week and living away from home for the first time. It all sounded so fun, and now who knows if we’ll ever get to do it? We’ve missed out on so much and this is just one more thing. It’s not that I’m not sad. I’m just used to it.”

 

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Senaida, 17

School: Havergal Next up: Arts and recording at New York University Most likely to: Be the next Taylor Swift and conduct an orchestra on the side

“Before Covid happened, my big plan was to ask Alec Benjamin to go to prom with me. He’s a pop star from the States, and he’s super-talented and cute. I did a cover of one of his songs and posted it online, and he liked it and started following me on Instagram. And then we met last year during a backstage meet-and-greet after his show in Toronto. His spring tour dates were supposed to end the day before my school’s prom, so I figured, who knows, maybe he’d be up for it. I made a promposal video in April, which included an original score that I wrote called ‘Dear Alec.’ It’s a mashup of his songs, and all the song titles correspond to a poem that I wrote. I was really disappointed when we found out prom was going to be cancelled, but I posted the video anyway. I haven’t heard anything from him yet. He dropped a new album, so I guess he’s been busy.

“My dress is from the Bay, and I bought it two years ago. I know, it’s a little ridiculous, but when I saw it, I just knew it was the dress. It’s been sitting in my closet ever since. Even last year, when I went to prom with a friend who’s a year older, I didn’t wear the dress. I wanted to save it for my real grad prom. I know—the irony. This photoshoot was the first time I’ve worn it since trying it on. We live in an apartment, so when I came down into the courtyard, to do the photoshoot everyone was looking at me. One guy said, ‘Congratulations.’ I think he thought I was getting married.

"My dress arrived at the end of February, and then, well, Covid": How Toronto grads are celebrating prom this year

“I went to a virtual prom put on by Jubilee, which is a youth organization based in L.A. There were people there from all over the world. I wasn’t able to make it onto the official Zoom, but I hopped onto a call with a bunch of random students from all over the world: the U.S., India, Pakistan, Germany. We chatted for a while and exchanged contact info. I guess that’s something that wouldn’t have happened under normal circumstances. It still wasn’t the same though. And I didn’t end up wearing the dress that I was planning to wear because it felt too fancy for sitting at home—and I can’t actually sit down in it.

“I’m supposed to go to NYU next year. It’s my dream school. I am trying to stay optimistic, crossing my fingers that the borders will open and I will at least be able to go to the States, even if classes are online at first. I can’t wait to get out in the world and meet other artists. At the beginning of quarantine, people were talking about how this time was going to be inspiring, and artists were going to do a lot of creating, but that’s not how it’s been for me. Being at home makes me feel stuck, and I guess my music is stuck too.”

 


Sarah, 18, and Sasha, 17

School: Cardinal Carter Academy for the Arts, Humberside Collegiate Up next: Music and psychology at York’s Concurrent Education Program (Sarah), Business at Ryerson’s Ted Rogers School of Management (Sasha) Most likely to: Inspire the next generation (Sarah); own his own company before he’s 30 (Sasha)

Sasha: “We met last summer at Ashbridge’s Bay. I was there with my friends, and Sarah was there with hers. The friends all left and we just stayed there and kept talking.” Sarah: “Even though Ashbridge’s is in the east end, it turned out we lived about five minutes apart on the other side of the city. We both liked volleyball.” Sasha: “I would say we both liked each other’s physical appearance.” Sarah: “Sasha! Don’t say that.” Sasha: “Well, we did. I thought Sarah was so pretty and cool. I think we hung out every day for a month after that first meeting.” Sarah: “We were definitely excited for prom. Well, Sasha was excited for his prom, and I was excited for mine—to go with Sasha and to get all dressed up with my friends. We were going to rent a limo.” Sasha: “When Covid happened, we had to be really careful. Sarah’s parents are both compromised, so we were definitely a lot stricter than other people our age. I would go to Sarah’s house and sit on the lawn, and she would sit on the porch.”

"My dress arrived at the end of February, and then, well, Covid": How Toronto grads are celebrating prom this year

Sarah: We heard about the #PromIsOn2020 event from the president of my school’s student council. I told Sasha he could come to my backyard and we would watch it together. And then I totally surprised him by decorating the backyard. I hung these swizzle decorations in the trees and got a banner from Party City that said ‘PROM 2020.’ I made a whole plate of tiny desserts: sugar cookies, macaroons, vanilla cupcakes and chocolate-covered strawberries (I’ve been baking a lot). And I hung a white blanket on the clothesline so that we could watch the prom on a projector.” Sasha: “I was definitely surprised. I got Sarah a corsage, and I thought that was going to be the big surprise. It was some kind of white flower. I’m not sure what. I’m not a flower expert.” Sarah: “It was beautiful. The prom was a series of performances on YouTube. We didn’t dance or anything, but it was special just to be spending time together, even if we had to stay two metres apart.” Sasha: “We’re definitely sad about the things we missed out on, but I think that our prom-night memory might be more special because of the circumstances. I definitely won’t forget it.” Sarah: “Me neither. It’s not just missing prom, though. It’s missing that last bit of time with your friends. I went to school to clean out my locker the other day, and it was so weird. Like a ghost town. As for next year, York will definitely be doing online learning in the fall. I’m pretty nervous. Finishing Grade 12 online was hard enough. I found it really difficult to stay focused.”

 

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Lauren, 17

School: Richview Collegiate Next up: Studying education at Lakehead Most likely to: Get lost in a grocery store

“My mom and I started looking at prom dresses back in the fall. My mom went to two proms when she was in high school—I was looking forward to it, but I think she was even more excited. We found my dream dress at Madeline’s boutique, and I got it later when they had a sale. My dad took me. He loves sales. My dress didn’t arrive until the end of February, and then, well, Covid.

“When my mom heard prom was cancelled—you should have seen the look on her face. I was really disappointed too. My best friend and I had this whole plan to take the afternoon off of school, get our nails and hair and makeup done professionally. This guy had asked me to be his date back in March. I’d said yes at the time, but then my guy friend said that he thought we were going together. I guess one good thing about Covid is that I didn’t have to hurt anyone’s feelings.”

"My dress arrived at the end of February, and then, well, Covid": How Toronto grads are celebrating prom this year

“There have been different stages to this whole experience. First, after March Break it was a bit of a honeymoon phase like, Woohoo, school is cancelled. Everyone was having fun doing video chats. But then we realized how serious it was, and we weren’t able to see our friends, and that was probably the worst stage. Now my friends and I are hanging out in the park—socially distanced, of course. We’ll go there in the afternoon and just talk about stupid stuff, TV shows. We’re watching Friends and How I Met Your Mother on Netflix. My plan for this summer was to get a job, maybe something at a summer camp, but I don’t think that’s going to happen. I was planning to move to Orillia for school, but now I’m staying home, at least for the fall.”

 


Zaiboon, 17

School: Woburn Collegiate Up next: International relations at University of Toronto Most likely to: Be voted mayor of Toronto

“I’m vice-president on student council, so I was involved with planning the prom. The theme was going to be Enchanted Garden, and we were going to do a lot of the decorations in green. I’m definitely one of those people who couldn’t wait for the big night. Growing up, you watch movies and TV, and prom is like the pinnacle of the high school experience. And then we spent three years watching the Grade 12s have their big moment. It’s funny because back in February, there was all the stuff with the teacher’s strike, so we were worried about whether that would affect our prom. And then we left for March Break and it’s like, boom.

“I joined the committee to plan #PromIsOn2020, a virtual Canadian prom put on by the Student Life Network on YouTube. It was cool working with students from all across the country and to learn how the Covid experience was different depending on your city and province. The event was a lot of fun: 14,000 students tuned in, and we had appearances from Justin Trudeau, Mitch Marner from the Leafs and Finn Wolfhard from Stranger Things. We also gave away 1,000 pizzas and raised $150,000 for Kids Help Phone. It was amazing—but it wasn’t the same.

"My dress arrived at the end of February, and then, well, Covid": How Toronto grads are celebrating prom this year

“On the one hand, we understand that compared to everything going on in the world, missing out on this big dance party with your friends might sound really silly. But I think we need to be allowed to be disappointed. My friends and I worked so hard during the first part of the year to get our university acceptances. The last few weeks of school were supposed to be our reward to hang out and have fun and spend time with our friends who we may not see again. I guess we’re lucky that we have video chat and social media. I think a lot of adults see social media as being stupid or bad, but for us it’s been such an important way of staying in touch. Covid isn’t the only big thing going on in the world right now. People my age need to be able to be in touch with each other and support each other, even when we can’t do that in person.”

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