This tale begins at Southeast High School, sometime late in my 11th grade year (that puts it in the spring of 1993). Second semester was inching along, and it was the final day to nominate people for the Prom royalty elections. It was also, of course, the final chance for those who had been nominated to remove their names from the ballot. As one of the most dedicated science nerds at the school, I had paid little attention to the upcoming election, but fate sent me on an errand to the office shortly before it closed that day. While the secretaries were taking care of whatever it was that I needed, I talked to my friend Nick Larsen who happened to be there, and casually glanced around the office. I saw the Prom King/Queen nomination list lying in front of me, and began idly looking at the names to see who was striving for that oh-so-great honor, when suddenly I realized that one of the names there was my own! "Look, Nick," I laughed, recognizing the handwriting, "Kale signed me up for Prom King!" Naturally, I immediately crossed my name off the list as Nick smiled, "That's pretty funny, Stu," or something to that effect. My business in the office completed, I walked back to my locker and headed home.
As you've presumably guessed, the story doesn't end there. Oh, no. Unbeknownst to me, Nick and Kale were both part of a larger plot to get me on the ballot, and moments after I left the office Nick added my name to the end of the list again, and he left the office a few minutes later just as it closed for the day. I don't recall how long it was before I found out that they had put my name back on the ballot, or even precisely how I found out. I do recall that my counselor talked to me at one point and asked if I wanted my name removed, but by that time it would have been rather inconvenient to do so, and having already heard from the ringleaders (Nick and another good friend of mine, Adam Barney) that I would be on, I decided not to spoil their little joke. At any rate, I quickly put it out of my mind until it was forcibly brought back just before the first round election.
A word of explanation may be necessary here, as I don't know how other schools generally handle the whole Prom royalty selection process. At Lincoln Southeast, all of those nominated for Prom King (or Queen) are listed on a ballot, which is given to all of the current juniors for a general vote. Each junior is allowed to vote for up to ten candidates for King and ten for Queen (a hint as to how many names are on the ballot, though even just 10 was nearly 2% of my graduating class), and the top ten vote-getters in each category become "semi-finalists". That list is distributed on yet another ballot (again given to all juniors), and the top five candidates of each gender are declared "finalists". At that point, the Prom King and Queen have actually already been selected, but the rankings among the finalists are not announced until the ceremony during Prom itself.
Back to our story. Just a couple of days before the first ballot was to be taken, I arrived at school to see my sophomore yearbook photo grinning back at me. Not in it's original tiny size, mind you, but blown up so big that you could count the printers' dots that composed my hair. Perhaps I would have been more pleased if that picture had turned out better, but I've always thought that my sophomore picture made me look like a used car salesman. The picture was not alone: it was on a poster which read:
There was even a little stamp down in the corner that read "APPROVED FOR POSTING L. S. PRIN.", as was required of all publicly displayed posters in the school. (Nick and Adam later showed me the poster for some other club whose corner they had ripped off and pasted onto their original.) I had to admit, it was pretty funny.
Fortunately, I have a reasonably good and sturdy sense of humor, as copies of the poster greeted me almost everywhere I looked that day. They had really gone all out, and a lot of people appreciated it. Quite a few of the posters had disappeared by the end of the day, quickly becoming collectors' items. I got no end of comments and questions: "Are you really running for Prom King?", "Do you think you'll win?", "Is this a joke?", "Are you angry at them?", "Did you make those?", and rarely, "Oh, how sweet. I'll vote for you." I made it quite clear that while my name was really on the ballot and I wouldn't stop anybody from voting for me, this was indeed all a big joke perpetrated by Nick and Adam. I exhibited a general attitude of annoyance as well, though if anyone seemed really concerned I made it clear that by and large I was enjoying the joke myself, and that it should be allowed to continue.
The election arrived, and yes, I did vote for myself, for the fun of it. I was surprised and even a little alarmed to hear people around me saying things like, "if you don't vote for anyone else, it's like giving all your votes to Steuard." Apparently, the name recognition and humor value worked, and when the semi-finalists were announced I was indeed one of them. I probably should have been worried when Nick and Adam started to talk in private more often, and I was definitely worried when Nick called my house and said, "Hi, Stu. Can I talk to your mom for a minute?" All that I could learn from her was that they wanted to use her laser printer for something. I was increasingly aware of preparations being made around me, but I didn't know what form they would take.
When the final election neared, I discovered what it was: the posters had multiplied, and the original "not going to Prom" slogan was joined by several new ones: "Steuard Jensen for Prom King: Will it matter in five years?", "Steuard Jensen for Prom King: The only candidate endorsed by StuCo" (that's short for Student Council, and to my knowledge they didn't actually endorse me), "Steuard Jensen for Prom King: Loved by the Cheerleaders (endorsed by Math Club, too)", "Steuard Jensen for Prom King: It's for the best, really", and, of course, "Steuard Jensen for Prom King: What the Hell?" The posters covered most of the available wall space, and there were very few places you could look in the halls without seeing a couple. On top of that, there were stickers: mailing labels printed with the various mottos were passed out to anyone who wanted them. Finally, I discovered what the laser printer had been for: right next to the library, on one of the largest sections of open wall in the building, was "Steuard Jensen For Prom King" printed out in a font so big that only one letter fit on each page. It was quite a sight.
After the final election, I was continually surprised by the number of people who came up to me and wished me good luck, or who said, "I voted for you." I shared one of my classes with Betsy Beverage, a co-captain of the cheerleaders, and she was particularly kind and sincere when she said, "I hope you make it!" The true gauge of the reaction, however, came the Friday before Prom.
Another (not-so-)brief aside: almost every high school holds those infamous gatherings known as Pep Rallies. In my experience, they are usually typified by a procession of athletes getting up in front of a microphone in front of the whole student body and saying something along the lines of,
"Uh... I'm Frank Williams, and, uh, I'm captain of the handball team. We... uh... we're seven and two this season, and so, uh, we're gonna try to make state this year. <cheers from the audience> I'd, uh, like to thank the JV cheerleaders, <Frank grins> they've come out to, uh, most uh the games this year, and, thanks. Our, um, next game is, uh, Saturday, so, uh, come out and root for us! <more cheers> <Frank walks away to the terribly, obnoxiously loud beating of the marching band's overzealous drum squad>".
Particularly to someone who doesn't really follow sports and who probably couldn't tell the difference between a handball and a basketball if they hit him in the nose (ok, I'm not really that bad), these events are extraordinarily boring. It always seemed particularly unfair that none of our academic competitions got anything close to the same recognition, despite the fact that we science nerds (and debaters and many others) probably worked as hard as the athletes did all year. Well, in my sophomore year, a number of us campaigned for an academic pep rally, a chance for all of the more academic groups and teams to share their accomplishments and their aspirations with the school, and for the school to actually show some enthusiasm for such things (Southeast was not famous for its respect for academics: the academic "wall of honor" was a short distance away from the athletic "hall of honor", which like most halls had TWO walls, both of which were rather long). At any rate, the administration agreed to give the idea a shot the next year.
The reason for that diversion, as you may have guessed, was that the Friday before Prom turned out to be the school's first academic pep rally. The debate team talked about its accomplishments, as did the Science Olympiad team, the medical club, and a number of other long-neglected groups. Among them was the Math club, and as its president I was supposed to say something about the nifty things we did over the course of the year. When it was my turn to speak, the cheerleader in charge said something like (and don't forget to imagine a classic cheerleader voice), "And now, representing the Math club is one of our Prom King finalists this year, Steuard Je..." but that's as far as she got, because by that point the cheers in the audience had grown so loud that even the PA system was drowned out. I got up to speak, and tried to say a word or two, but the cheering just increased in volume. For some reason that still escapes me, a group up in one part of the stands started chanting what sounded like "Hamp-ster! Hamp-ster!" For a full minute or two that nonstop cheering went on, and I became more and more amused by the whole affair (and, I must admit, more and more embarrassed, too). I was only supposed to have about 30 seconds to talk in the first place, so I didn't say much (not that there was much to say); I think I just made some comment about wishing that people would cheer that loud at UNL Math Day. Finally, after I stepped away from the microphone and made my way back to sit with my friends, the crowd mostly calmed down. Nick and Adam were laughing, both at the crowd and at my attempt to take the Math club seriously after the reaction I got.
Well, true to my slogan, I was not planning to go to Prom. That was only partly because I wasn't terribly excited about the event: I had in fact asked Colleen Marion, whom I rather liked, and although she said she wasn't interested in going to Prom (she, too, was a science nerd), she and I were planning to get together with some other friends and just hang out together that night. However, after sharing the days events with my parents (who had already heard about them from Adam's mother, who seems to know everything that occurs in Lincoln the moment it happens), my mother insisted that I go. "They obviously want you to be there," she said, "and it would be a shame for the crown to go to the runner up if they all voted for a non-traditional candidate." (That was the policy: the crown and runner-up ranks went, in order of votes, to the finalists present at the Prom itself.) I held out as long as I could, citing my other plans, but that turned out to be just what my mother needed: she called Colleen's mother and convinced her that it would be best if we all went to Prom instead of whatever else we were planning on. It just so happened that Colleen lived next door to the sponsor of the cheerleaders, who was one of the people in charge of the Prom royalty selection, and she told our parents that it would be "a good idea" for me to come. Well, that clinched it, and when Colleen's mother picked her up at a "Women in Science" camp that she had been at until that day, she told her straight out that we were going to Prom. I'll admit it: I was pretty happy with the way that turned out.
In the end, a rather large group of us ended up going there together. I knew that since it was a dance and all I should dress up a little, so I wore a nice purplish-red wool sweater (which Colleen was allergic to, as I learned later) and a pair of grey slacks. In my own defense, that my outfit ended up going rather nicely with Colleen's blue dress; better, probably, than a more formal outfit would have. However, there was a factor that I hadn't counted on.
The evening passed reasonably smoothly, despite a bit of rivalry between Adam and me for Colleen's attention. Finally, it was time for the Crowning Ceremony, and the previous year's Prom King was there to give away the new crown. The finalists were announced in reverse order, starting with the fourth runner up, and each time I half expected my name to be called. Finally, the first runner up was announced, and it wasn't me! My friends pushed me in the direction of the stage, and I stumbled up there in something of a daze. I wasn't precisely used to the attention of large throngs of fellow students, particularly not that of a group as diverse as this one and particularly not with that sort of approval. Oh, there were some people who were upset, like the drunk friends of the third runner up who were grunting something incomprehensible about rodents near the front of the crowd, but for the most part there was a lot of cheering and I was rather at a loss. Fortunately, no one asked me to give an acceptance speech, and the ex-Prom King stuck the crown on my head for me (it wasn't on very well, though, and had a tendency to fall off until I stuffed it on more firmly later in the evening). The problem was that the crown was a bright, garish red, which clashed terribly with my not-quite-red sweater. Fortunately, I have limited fashion sense and rarely worry much about such things, so I didn't mind.
That's the bulk of the story; I walked off the stage with the Prom Queen (Betsy Beverage, in fact), and we shared the traditional royal dance together. Well, most of it: near the end, her boyfriend (who was one of the runners up, I don't know which, and a rather large football player to boot) cut in, and I was just as happy to go, as I wanted to find my friends (Colleen in particular). Shortly after finding her, we were unexpectedly whisked away by her neighbor the cheerleading sponsor, who explained that as Prom King I was entitled to a free set of photos, and without giving either of us a chance to object, she stuck us in front of the camera, where we were manipulated by the photographer into what he considered an appropriate pose. I was quite pleased with the way the situation turned out; Colleen (who, as you may recall, had at least partially declined my invitation) was somewhat uncomfortable; and Adam was bordering on livid (don't worry, he's over it). (I still have a couple of pictures from the evening.)
The bunch of us went to our respective homes and changed into more comfortable clothes, and then met again for the school sponsored post prom party (an attempt to keep students from going out and getting roaring drunk). (An interesting note about post-Prom that could also serve rather well to date this whole sequence: there was a dunking booth, and teachers signed up for hour-long shifts on a preprinted schedule some time in advance. One clever science teacher signed up for the 2am to 3am shift, and then had no end of fun laughing at the other teachers, as it was the day of the spring shift to daylight savings time and technically there was no hour between 2am and 3am. Just a fun aside.)
After that, there really isn't much else to say. Life went back to normal, and apart from a few comments in classes I faded back to being a reasonably typical (if unusually well known) science nerd. (One of the comments was from Betsy, who told me that I was a good dancer. I think she was just being nice: I've always had decent rhythm, but didn't really learn to dance until college.) Nick and Adam went on to plant rather a lot of crocuses in the school lawn, which sadly didn't do too well (partly because the lawn was generally kept mowed fairly short); I occasionally hear rumors that they're going to run me for president. Before long, Colleen and I began dating in earnest, though that relationship ended not long after we went to different colleges. Sadly, I was not able to give the new crown away the next year, as the National Science Bowl competition turned out to be the same weekend, and for a science nerd, the decision was probably inevitable.
In the end, being a Prom King doesn't do much for you. I mentioned it to an aunt of mine who worked at the time at the admissions department of Reed College, jokingly saying that I could put it on my college applications, and she replied, "I'm sure you'll have plenty of better things to put on your applications." Oh well. It was a heck of a practical joke, and it makes a great story. I hope you enjoyed it!