Last Friday, my church was the location for a Night to Shine prom. If you aren’t aware, this is a nationwide prom, which has since gone international, sponsored by the Tim Tebow Foundation. It is aimed at “people with special needs” (the foundation’s words, not mine).
We hosted over 100 guests and over 200 volunteers for Night to Shine on Friday, February 9. Everyone had a marvelous time and felt loved and important. And you know something? I’m all for that. I’m happy my church got to participate, and that people were able to help each other feel valued.
That’s right. If you have ever participated in Night to Shine or a similar event in any way, I have no issue with that. My goal on this blog has never been to “steal” anyone’s happiness in any way. On this day, Valentine’s Day, anything that makes a person, with or without a disability, feel loved should be given its props. I’m also aware that Tim Tebow has a sister with a disability, so he probably knows the ins and outs of disability culture more than your average TAB person. I am not here to throw Tim Tebow or Night to Shine under the bus, or suggest that we dismantle and discontinue events like it.
But I have found that sometimes it’s best to question events like Night to Shine – namely, what we’re doing and why we’re doing it. That doesn’t only apply to things affecting people with disabilities, by the way. In our current culture, I’ve found it’s beneficial to question everything, even and especially what you think you know. I personally can’t help it. I’m a nerd. I’m a brainiac. I’m a Ravenclaw (well, on most house quizzes). I’m a scholar. It’s what I do.
But even if none of that were true…let’s question.
It bears repeating: I am not here to denounce Night to Shine. But some elements of it, and events, places, etc. like it (Special Olympics, amusement and water parks specifically for “special needs families,” special ceremonies, special education), bother me and always will. I can’t fully celebrate Night to Shine and things like it; it goes against my conscience. Why? Well, let’s break it down.
-Night to Shine is, first and foremost, a segregated event. No, we don’t use that word, but that’s what it is. Unless you have a disability, you cannot come to this prom as a guest and be honored. You cannot dance, partake of the food, or have your picture taken in a photo booth.
Now of course, temporarily able-bodied people can and do come to this prom, but as volunteers. They are not the honorees; they are not who Night to Shine is for. They are there to supplement the experience – make it more enjoyable yes, but also, make sure nothing goes wrong (we’ll get to that). You will not see a TAB volunteer crowned king or queen. You will not see a volunteer being cheered on the red carpet. That is for “people with special needs” only. The event is segregated, end of discussion.
-Attendees with disabilities are cheered on a literal red carpet, just for showing up. Now again, there is nothing wrong with this in theory. Everybody needs to know they matter, that they rock, that they are God’s chosen prince or princess. The spirit behind this is fine. But I personally would feel awkward if a whole crowd of people started cheering for me just for getting out of a limo and walking into a building. Showing up at prom is not an achievement. It is a rite of passage and a privilege as a person, but it is not worthy of some of Night to Shine’s display. I mean, for crying out loud, the military shows up to this thing and salutes attendees. That’s fine if they want to do it, but I have to say – what for? Did the military show up at your prom (unless you were already in class with a guy or girl who came in dress uniform – and who was then celebrated because he or she was going to go fight, perhaps die, for his or her country)? Did people cheer you just for coming? Or, like so many of us, did you just go with your date and enjoy being with them and the people you loved? Did you slip in stag, a wallflower, and just hope the night ended early?
It’s more than that, though. Once again, I have to point out that we as people have a serious issue with talking out of both sides of our mouths when it comes to PWDs. One minute, we tell them they’re special, they’re loved, they rock, they’re the best people ever. For one night. And then the next day, we tell them, “You still haven’t met your IEP goal. You won’t do what other kids do. You’ll graduate from high school, but you’ll still come back to life skills class until you’re 22. After that, good luck. You’re special, yes, but only in the sense that your needs can’t be met the way everyone else’s can. You’re loved, but mostly (sometimes only) by family members and professionals.” Why are we doing that? Which brings me to…
-Night to Shine is just that – one night. After that, the clock strikes midnight. Cinderella goes back to scrubbing floors (or stacking boxes, bagging groceries, or filling bins for no pay – or waiting for the school, Voc. Rehab, whoever to help them). It’s a “high” that PWDs and their families look forward to every year – but what happens afterward? As with Special Olympics, many guests go back to being invisible. And somehow, society is okay with that. We’d never say it directly or out loud, but we feel, “We gave them their night to shine, so they should be happy and content.” Wrong! Oh, so wrong.
Night to Shine is valuable, just as prom is valuable. But what happened for you after prom? Did you graduate and then go right back to the same school the next year? Did you keep your first high school job for years on end – which, by the way, you got paid for? Did you continue living in your parents’ home, or do so without any plans to leave (because as we all know, the economy has put that particular milestone on hold for many of us). No. Things changed.
What changes for PWDs after Night to Shine, particularly our young people? Too often, the answer is “nothing.”
-Night to Shine is not a rite of passage. As noted, it is fundamentally different from a “real” prom. For many families, it is the only alternative to the real prom, or any real event where a guy or girl might be treated like a truly special person, allowed to dress up, dance, feel important, whatever. Some schools still do not allow PWDs to attend prom, or they hold a “special needs prom” of their own in a separate room or location.
Now of course, some students and adults with disabilities might not mind that. After all, it is still their time to shine. But what about those who do? What about those who want to go to the real prom but are afraid to because they won’t be accepted? What are we doing to make them feel worthy to shine?
I’ll speak from personal experience here. I didn’t go to prom. Could I have gone stag? Yes, and a lot of girls and guys from my class did. But I knew if I did, I might not be accepted. I would be treated as, “Well, of course she’s alone. She’s not disabled enough for the special prom, but she really doesn’t belong here.”
I wanted a prom date. I wanted to be asked – and not because the guy felt sorry for me or wanted to do a good deed. All through high school, I wanted somebody to take me to prom, or to the Christmas dance, or out on a date, because he thought I was smart, or pretty, or cool. It didn’t happen. And I stayed home that night, rather than deal with the hurt, because I knew the reason. People might ask a girl with a disability to prom, but they would never ask a smart girl with a disability, or a Christian girl with a disability, or a smart Christian girl. One of those things was fine. All three together, along with any of my other idiosyncracies, would have just been too much.
Am I being too harsh on high school guys? Maybe. I don’t mean to be. But that is the place I came from. I didn’t get the rite of passage. And to me, a “special needs prom” surrounded by students with severe disabilities, teachers, and aide workers, would never make up for it. I thought about attending Night to Shine because I still wanted my moment. I really did. But I know it would be artificial, at least for me. I want to wait for the real thing, whatever that looks like.
-At Night to Shine, everyone gets crowned king or queen. Because of how the event is set up, this is not necessarily an issue – certainly not the biggest issue. But it does imply the “everybody gets a trophy” mentality. It also implies to PWDs, “This is the only way you’ll ever get this honor.” Whether or not the PWD makes that connection, I don’t like the implications.
-Volunteers are asked to help in case something goes wrong. Now, of course, that’s not the only reason they are there. Night to Shine volunteers do a lot of things other prom chaperones do. They pin/fix corsages and cumberbunds. They serve foods and drinks. They point people to the restrooms. At Night to Shine, all guests also get a “buddy,” so if somebody needs help eating, or navigating the dance floor, or dealing with sensory overload, they have a trusted person there. That’s absolutely fine.
What I have an issue with is again, not the construct itself, but how it doesn’t match up with how real proms or similar events are handled. For instance, guests are taken to a “sensory room” to cool down if, say, they get upset because they aren’t able to dance with who they want to. (Fine, if the person is really overstimulated or screams or gets violent, but how often does that really happen? Night to Shine implies it happens constantly). Volunteers are coached on what to do or say in negative situations (again, a person gets upset, something doesn’t go exactly as planned). Many guests, including full grown adults, attend this prom with parents or caregivers, who are invited to use a “respite room” to relax, talk – and essentially get away from their loved ones, who are so loved, but oh, so burdensome. (And let’s not forget, after Night to Shine, the stress, the burden, the whatever, it all comes right back)!
I mean, think about it. Just think about it for a minute. Why is this event set up this way? Again, I understand having “buddies” for the people who really need them. But one, the buddies are told they must never, ever, for any reason, leave their guests. That gives the guests no real opportunity to socialize without “supervision.” At least during our recent event, a lot of the buddies were also high school kids; I wonder how many of them came to have a good time, but also do a good deed? I wonder how many PWDs wondered, “If this person didn’t have to help me, would he or she be here?” I would’ve wondered.
Oh, and also: the guests are not allowed to refer to anyone as a date, boyfriend, or girlfriend. If they do, they are corrected by a buddy or volunteer, and volunteers are encouraged to send extremely clear “just friends” signals. Now again, I get that for PWDs who may not have grasped social boundaries. But is that their fault? Is it really so difficult to teach boundaries to every PWD, to the point that that person can’t even go to freaking *prom* with a friend, boyfriend, or girlfriend – and know the difference?
Think about it. Was this your prom? Were you corrected for calling your date, your date? If you got frustrated because the guy or girl you wanted to be with didn’t reciprocate, were you escorted out to a separate room? Were your parents there in any capacity – and if yes, was it to make sure you were “okay” or that you “behaved yourself?” Were you followed around by one specific volunteer all night? Were teachers, volunteers, and chaperones coached because after all, you know how fragile these students are. It might get ugly?
No! Your prom had girls crying in the girls’ room and boys smoking in the boys’ room – and we all survived. If somebody did something inappropriate, they were escorted *off the premises* by the appropriate personnel – the police, if it was serious enough. But nobody felt they had to shepherd people into a sensory room just for being upset, or talking too loud, or whatever the excuse happened to be. Volunteers were there to help, but they didn’t hover. And for good golly sakes – this night was fun because we got a break from our parents! If our parents were there, I guarantee you they were not in a “respite room.” I guarantee they weren’t talking about how challenging it can sometimes be to raise us – okay, maybe a little bit. But they probably also bragged because Gracie got into Yale. Mike’s attending Notre Dame on a football scholarship. Pena got accepted into the Navy, and she ships out graduation night. Tommy’s going to join his dad at the family mechanic shop, and maybe later he’ll start his own business. Nobody was talking about life skills classes, or group home placements, or hoping and praying that Voc. Rehab would come through with a minimum wage job.
I want everybody, disability or not, to have their nights to shine – and days, and midnights, and afternoons, as many as can be given for as long as they’re on earth. But not like this. Not in a way that continues to draw the line between “us” and “them.” And if you say, “Well, Chick, my son/daughter needs a prom of their own because it’s the only way”–what does that tell you? Shining shouldn’t take the red carpet, just for existing. It shouldn’t take military salutes and special buddies and respite rooms. People should shine because they exist yes, but because they are accepted. Because they have achieved. Because their lives, and the love given to them, are real. 24-7. Every day.
It’s Valentine’s Day, folks. Today is the day to tell your loved ones they shine. But every day afterward is a chance to prove it. How? Through the chance to live real lives. Through support and encouragement. Through real hope. Through unconditional acceptance, no matter what their brains or bodies can or cannot do well.
If we do that, we will all shine. And at night, when we look up at the stars, we’ll feel good about what we – tiny specks in the galaxy though we are – did that day.