No prom? For this teen, it’s a trifecta of missed milestones
St. Petersburg, Fla. – On a Friday night in late February, 17-year-old Amanda Reynolds raced into a department store on Florida’s Gulf coast. She’d been on a mission for weeks, and after countless hours shopping online and in stores, there it was.
Off the shoulder, blue lace, with crystal accents. Her perfect prom dress.
For decades, the prom has represented a cornerstone of American teenage life. Shopping for the dress, finding a date, posing for photos, dancing awkwardly in a low-lit gym - it’s all enshrined in movies, books, television and the memories of generations of Americans.
Combine prom with graduation and an 18th birthday. It’s a trifecta of milestones. But now, for millions of Class of 2020 teenagers living through the coronavirus outbreak, these coming-of-age moments look and feel vastly different. And while they’re doing the best they can to reschedule, to wing it, to celebrate virtually with technology, the truth is that this generation will never regain these moments. Amanda Reynolds is like all of these young people – a case study in what is being lost by those who, in spring 2020, are on the cusp of adulthood and losing many of their expected rites of passage.
But that day at Macy’s, Amanda had no idea a pandemic would change everything.
Amanda and her mom knew then, on Feb. 28, that the dress was the one. Her mom had promised Amanda that if she spent no money for homecoming, she could splurge on a prom dress.
“I was in love,” Amanda said. “As soon as I put it on, I resembled Cinderella.”
The next day, the United States reported a coronavirus-related death, a 44-year-old man in Washington. Amanda didn’t pay much attention to the news. A week later, Florida reported its first two coronavirus deaths, but that was barely a blip on the high-school radar.
Instead, the beginning of March was like all the other days of senior year at Pinellas Park High, filled with classes, friends, homework and the anticipation of things to come. School would be out soon, goodbyes would be said, and it’d be time for college. Amanda planned to attend P-Tech, a local technical school, to take her first classes toward a nursing degree.
By the second week of March, as people nationwide called on Gov. Ron DeSantis to close Florida’s beaches to spring break tourists over fears of spreading the virus, news of the pandemic seeped into conversations online and at school. Amanda wasn’t worried: “It was all the way in China.”
There were more pressing things on her mind: plans for spring break (which anime movies should she and her friends watch?), the theme of the prom (why did the school let juniors pick the theme - Mardi Gras instead of the Roaring ‘20s?), and her 18th birthday (where should she celebrate?)
In one class, Amanda and her peers spent a week watching and discussing the movie “Contagion,” about a fast-moving lethal virus. The teacher talked about how viruses spread through the air. He put baby powder on a desk in the middle of the room. “Then he smacked the baby powder a couple of times for a visual representation of germs when you cough,” she said.
The lesson was a timely tie-in to real-world events. But Amanda and other students were skeptical COVID-19 would reach Pinellas County. They didn’t know anyone who had it, much less anyone who died. It seemed to be happening half a world away, in places like Italy and Spain, countries Amanda hasn’t had a chance to visit yet.
On Friday the 13th, the day before spring break, Amanda sailed through classes. “I was fully expecting to come back after spring break, and it would completely be like normal,” she said. Prom was two weeks away.
But it turned out to be the last normal day. That afternoon, as school let out, President Donald Trump declared a national emergency.
Florida Sen. Rick Scott was self-quarantining after possible virus exposure. The governor told Floridians to put mass gatherings on hold.
On Saturday, Amanda’s school sent a text message: Prom was postponed, indefinitely.
But a new date would be set, Amanda figured - probably late April. She carefully wrapped her Cinderella dress in plastic and hung it. She saw it each night before she went to bed and each morning when she woke up.
She’d been waiting for a night to dress up with a group of girlfriends and have the most fun in all their 12 years of school. And if a guy asked her to dance, she probably wouldn’t say no.
Amanda hoped the district could deep-clean the school, and it’d be back to normal. “It’s not even that bad,” she told herself.
Hope began to waver March 15. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended a ban on gatherings of more than 50 people. In neighboring Orlando, Universal Studios and Walt Disney World shuttered. The only other time the theme parks closed like this was after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks - before Amanda was born.
On March 16, her district extended spring week.
And yet, the Florida primary election went on as planned the next day. Some things were normal - why wouldn’t school continue on schedule?
On March 24, halfway through the unexpected second week of break, the Tokyo Olympics were postponed. Closer to home, Amanda was crushed that grad bash - a weekend at Universal Studios - was canceled.
Amanda reluctantly started online school. On March 26, the U.S. led the world in coronavirus cases. On April 1, the governor of Florida issued a statewide lockdown.
Amanda’s world grew smaller. She couldn’t visit her friends or her grandparents. There were no movie nights with friends.
On the phone, her grandma told her: “You are literally living through history right now.” Amanda thought, “I prefer my normal life.”
Amanda’s 18th birthday – April 5 – loomed. Before the pandemic, she and her friends had dreamed up a three-day extravaganza. They’d hang out in her hot tub at home, watch movies, go to the beach, and, for the big event, head to an “escape room,” an intense game where they’d discover clues and solve puzzles to win freedom.
Now her home had become an escape room – but without time limits, prizes or exits. Nowhere to go, no one to see.
She had questions she’d never imagined. How long would life be like this? Would she march at graduation? What about the summer? College? Would anything normal ever happen again?
“I miss going to school. I miss being able to talk to my friends and have something to do,” she said. “I feel a little guilt. There are people who are getting sick and dying, but this is also, like, I’ve been looking forward to this my entire school career. I get to be sad because my emotions are real.”
Her mom is just as sad. Missing the 18th birthday festivities was bad enough. Now, it’s prom and graduation, too.
“Once we get back to normal, whatever normal may be, we’re going to do something,” Annette Reynolds said. “Have a big party for her to celebrate. It’s kind of a half-replacement idea. It won’t be the same memories she would have had, but it will be something.”
On the day of the big birthday, the family of four – Annette, Amanda, her dad and sister – made the best of things. They drove to a convenience store where Amanda bought her first lottery scratch-off ticket. She was the only customer. She and her mom made a cake infused with coffee and giggled while filming a video.
They sang “Happy Birthday,” and presented Amanda her cake, with candles in the shape of the number 18.
“Make a wish,” Annette said.
Sure, Amanda wished things were different. She wants to dance at prom in her Cinderella dress, walk the Major League Baseball field where her school would normally hold graduation, and have a real 18th birthday party – all the milestones teenagers wait years to experience but Amanda will miss.
But her wish that day - that has to stay secret to come true, she believes.
“I can tell you that I hope for the pandemic to get better,” she said, “and for everyone not to suffer anymore.”