Abandoned at the Dance
My family is shrinking. Two years ago, at the elementary school family dance, I had four kids. Last year, I was down to three. This year, I had a mere two in tow. At this rate, two years from now, I’ll be childless, which I guess will save me money on dance tickets since they don’t let you in without a kid. Before long, we’ll be planning wedding dances, which is simply obnoxious. I can’t possibly be old enough for my girls to be aging out of things. All four of them were born last week.
The most unexpected part of this weekend wasn’t that my family’s attendance rate at the grade school dance was down, but that my older children skipped their own dance at the middle school. In a perplexing scheduling decision, the school district arranged for separate dances for both age groups at different locations on the same night. In the past, my thirteen-year-old, Betsy, and eleven-year-old, Mae, took their big kid dances very seriously. Everyone knows that relationships that start in middle school last a lifetime. This time, though, they weren’t interested. As an old and wise eighth grader, Betsy is too cool not only for family dances, but for the ones with kids her own age as well. Her decision came down to teen math. When I asked her why she didn’t want to go to the middle school dance, she gave me a fifteen-minute explanation about how this person only wanted to go if that person went or some other person didn’t. It was a complex social matrix I failed to understand, but she assured me the final numerical answer was that she had zero desire to go. As for Mae, the last time she went, my wife Lola made her wear fancy shoes instead of sneakers. Apparently that soured her on dancing forever. I gave her a special dispensation this time to wear whatever shoes she wanted, no matter how casual or riddled with holes, but her mind was made up. My older girls are over dancing for this school year. The town council from Footloose would have been thrilled.
For a moment, I thought I could use my older girls’ new anti-middle school dance stance to get our old crew back together for the grade school one. Betsy attended her last grade school dance as a sixth grade middle schooler, when none of her friends with younger siblings came back to their alma mater and she was bored out of her mind. She refused to make that mistake again. Mae was less sure. Fifteen minutes before the family dance, she was still on the fence. There was hope. When the deadline hit, however, she decided she’d rather stay home and craft by herself. I’m raising a generation of party poopers. I’d have to make the night amazing on my own.
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I was leading a tiny squad of four. Lola and I loaded into the van with Lucy, nine, and Waffle, eight. We arrived at the dance right when it started. I had shelled out five dollars a ticket for this shindig, and I intended to get my money’s worth. In previous years, the gym lights were dim, but this time, they were at full blast like a basketball game was about to start. Little kids don’t need mood lighting. They need maximum brightness so they can see as they run around the dance floor playing tag. The whole night was really just a big playdate in fancy clothes. That’s exactly what Lucy and Waffle were looking for. Waffle quickly disappeared in a swarm of kids her own age. Lucy hung closer to me and Lola. Fourth graders were scarce, and there was no one from her group of friends. Overall attendance seemed down. I was part of the problem. I can’t complain about other people not showing up when I brought half as many kids as usual. Many of the children who were there were guardians, not kids. Lola and I had our first baby when we were twenty-five. When Betsy was in kindergarten, we were still considered young parents. Now I’m thirty-eight. To my aging eyes, it looked like some of those other moms and dads didn’t have their driver’s licenses. In that crowd, Lola and I could have passed for grandparents. Well, I could have. Lola remains as youthful as ever. That’s what happens when, after twenty-nine, you start aging backwards.
There are upsides to getting old. Those extra years have only made me better at embarrassing my kids. At first, Lola and I set up shop on the bleachers. That was boring. I wanted to dance. Okay, “dance” isn’t the right word. I wanted to move in a jerky, semi-random fashion with no correlation to the song. Once I hit the dance floor, I was swaying more at the beat than with it. Lola correctly noted that my dance moves were the same for every song. I shuffled my feet back and forth and moved my arms at my sides in a circular motion like I was cosplaying as Thomas the Tank Engine. We were among only a few parents grooving to/near the music. My shameful display helped keep it that way. Nobody wanted to be in the blast zone of second-hand embarrassment. Most of the other moms and dads stuck to the tables outside the dance floor. Even the young parents who were children themselves understood that was the socially acceptable way to behave. I didn’t care. I buried my dignity in a shallow grave and then danced on it. It was the daddest thing I could do.
My self-inflicted humiliation had a greater purpose. I needed to cheer up Lucy. As Betsy and Mae had already discovered, whether or not something is fun, be it a dance or an international crime spree, depends on who you’re with. With her normal group of friends missing in action, Lucy hovered around me and Lola. She was especially sad since her best friend recently announced that she was leaving to be homeschooled. That’s the same friend who only lives a block away but isn’t allowed to see Lucy outside of school because our family can’t be trusted. Now that I know that kid is leaving, I feel better knowing that her mom is judging not only us, but also the entire school system. If you think literally everyone but you is the problem with the world, maybe it’s time for a little introspection. Regardless, Lucy was sad, so I had to clown it up harder than usual. That was easy enough. As always, I was the best at being the worst.
Showing up with my whole family wasn’t the only tradition I had to abandon this year. Usually, we cram into the photo booth to take some silly pics that Lola then pins above her desk at work. This year, though, the photo booth went down early. The radioactive levels of humiliation I was giving off from across the gym likely wrecked the camera. We waited patiently for more competent dads to fix it. As soon as it was up and running again, we rushed to get in line. We waited for ten minutes until it broke for a final time. It was the McDonald’s ice cream machine of photography equipment. It was declared dead for the evening, probably because I was still nearby. It was a mistake to let me get that close. Pivoting, I remembered that I have a powerful camera in my pocket at all times. I can even use it for free instead of paying two dollars per ticket. It’s not like I fork over hundreds of dollars a month for my family plan. We set up shop in front of a backdrop and asked a nearby parent to take our picture. As usual, I ruined most of the photos, but everyone else looked great. The only downside was we were missing a third of my family. Upon seeing me in the photos, Betsy and Mae were extra glad to be left out.
The only appropriate way to close out any event at an elementary school is with gambling. The PTA set up a long table with possible prizes. We dropped six tickets in the bags by various gift packages and waited. At 8:30, the big display at the front of the gym announced the winners. For the first time ever, we scored. We came away with a basket of champagne and chocolate. The lady who handed it out didn’t even card me. Liquor laws don’t apply in school gymnasiums. Also, I looked old enough to be her dad. That was our cue to call it a night. We drove home to enjoy our prize and feed the kids. They’d been asking for snacks from the concession stand for hours. I placated them with a promise that, when we got home, they could have leftover cake that we took with us from their cousin’s birthday party earlier Saturday. The best time to binge on buttercream frosting is right before bed. When we arrived back at our place, Lucy and Waffle changed their minds. Instead of baked desserts, they wanted hot chocolate and popcorn. Lola and I headed upstairs with a different bottle of champagne we’d already chilled while the younger kids threw themselves a movie night. The cake remained in the fridge, where it will likely stay until I finish it myself. My main role in this family is as a human garbage disposal. It’s good to be useful.
Lola and I weren’t far into our own movie when Waffle reappeared. She was crying. She had grabbed a glass dish from the microwave when it was still hot. There was no visible damage to her skin, but she clutched her hand like her fingers needed to be amputated. We settled on running them under cold water, which didn’t accomplish anything but made her feel like we were performing crucial first aid. The primary form of medicine in this house is the placebo effect. I’d ban Waffle from using dangerous kitchen appliances, but Lola recently started a microwave fire, so clearly age has no protective effect. It was a dramatic end to an enjoyable night. Fingers and my reputation were burned, but the fun survived unscathed. Even the kids who stayed home had a blast. Mae had a wonderful, quiet evening to herself while Betsy multitasked playing Roblox and doing a video call with a friend. Even when she’s being antisocial, she still socializes. Next year, I suspect Lucy will join them at home, and Lola and I will take Waffle to the dance by herself. Waffle is looking forward to it. She’s been angling to be an only child for a long time. She’s almost there—if the microwave doesn’t finish her off first.
Anyway, that’s all I’ve got for now. Catch you next time.