Surviving Prom Night

Prom night is supposed to be one of the most exciting events of our lives. At least that’s what Walethia Aquil thought as a senior at Northwestern High School in Flint, Michigan. Unfortunately for her, it turned out to be one of the worst.

Just a few weeks before the prom, Walethia didn’t even think she’d be going. She described herself as “shy, with very little self-confidence, and not very popular.” The bottom line was that nobody had asked her yet.

As the date got closer and closer, conversation in the hallways turned almost exclusively to the prom: what kind of dress the other girls were going to wear, where they planned to have dinner, and who they were going with. For Walethia, all that only served as a constant reminder that she didn’t even have a date.

But then just a few days before the big night, everything changed.

A guy nobody wanted to go with asked the girl nobody wanted to take. So now, I was going to the prom.”

Now, Walethia didn’t have much money. But she took her preparation seriously. She found a dress on sale she could afford. She styled her own hair and manicured her nails. She already had long white gloves. And she had a pair of shoes dyed to match her new gown. She was all ready for the prom. Or so she thought.

While she prepared well for how she should look, what she hadn’t considered is that she didn’t know how to behave. And that, it turns out, was a much bigger deal for Walethia. The reason? This wouldn’t just be her first prom. It would be her first date. She had never been out with a boy on what most people would consider an official date over dinner or to a dance. In fact, Walethia had no recollection of ever eating in a restaurant before that night. As one of seven siblings, she explained, “We never had money to feed nine people in a restaurant.”

Prom night came and Walethia remembers being excited but nervous as they sat down at the restaurant. When the waiter handed her a menu, she didn’t have a clue how to read it. None of the things on it sounded like what she was used to eating at home. Eventually she saw the word “shrimp” in one menu item and at least recognized that as something she might like. So she ordered it.

When the waiter delivered it, she was mortified. He laid in front of her a plate of food so enormous she was embarrassed to even be seen sitting near it. And other than the shrimp, she recognized little of what was on it.

She sat there motionless, paralyzed in self-conscious fear. She felt like every eye in the restaurant was on her. And even if she hadn’t just lost her appetite or knew what food was on her plate, she didn’t know which fork to use or what to do with her napkin. Looking back, she describes herself as just not having any of the social skills to navigate all this strange territory.

Walethia made it through the evening and the rest of high school. But that night left a lasting mark on her, one she would revisit on several occasions. She went on to attend Mott Community College in Flint. After her first eighteen months, she made the dean’s list. But she was still shy and insecure, and she struggled with her social skills. It was that lack of social skills that eventually led her to drop out of college entirely. She hoped it had just been the school environment and the social pressures of being a teenager that were so difficult. But she found the working world no different. After taking a job at General Motors, she concluded that

People didn’t like me, and I didn’t like people. I was missing opportunities right and left.”

It was clear the need for these skills wasn’t going away. If anything, they were getting more important the older she got.

Walethia’s Solutions

Eventually, she decided to attend a finishing school to develop her social skills. And that turned out to be one of her better decisions. It gave her the confidence to handle any situation in business or social settings. After many successes in her career since, she concluded there was nothing she couldn’t achieve when she combined hard work with good manners, grace, charm, and poise.

But she never forgot the old Walethia and knew there were others who struggled with the same issues. And that led her to start her own business: Grace & Charm, a training firm for entrepreneurs and young executives to help make sure their personal and professional image doesn’t limit their success. For sixteen years now, she’s successfully coached business leaders, politicians, entertainers, and beauty pageant winners.

And she also never forgot that shy little girl who was terrified at her prom dinner. And as frightening as it was for her at the time, she’s since learned an even more disturbing scenario that plays out every year at prom time. The social pressure and anxiety surrounding prom night has only increased in the years since Walethia was in school. Now there are kids who fly off to New York to pick out just the right dress or rent limousines and even helicopters to deliver them to their dinner destinations.

At times, this has led to all kinds of unfortunate consequences. She learned from a guidance counselor at a local high school of a senior in her school she was concerned about. She was on track academically, with a promising college and working career in front of her. The only thing between her and that future was prom night and the final five months of high school. But she couldn’t afford a new prom dress. Her plan to deal with that unfortunate situation? Drop out of school. Seriously.

The social stigma of not going to prom, or going but wearing anything but a shiny new dress, was apparently stronger than the stigma and consequences of dropping out. If she weren’t a student, there would be no pressure to go to prom. That was her solution. And apparently, this girl wasn’t alone in her predicament or her solution.

Situations like that led Walethia to start another venture, but this one is a purely charitable one. As part of her venture, called My Dreams Do Come True, Walethia solicits donations of new or slightly used prom dresses and gives them away to girls in the Genesee County area who need them.

But she doesn’t just provide the dress. She gives the girls the whole boutique shopping experience. For most, this will be their first experience shopping for a dress. And like Walethia in that restaurant many years earlier, they wouldn’t know how to handle themselves shopping for a formal gown. So she teaches them. They come in, get sized, pick out a nice dress, and even have it altered if needed. In the first three years, she’s given away more than five hundred dresses to local girls, most of whom otherwise wouldn’t be able to afford one. She recalls at least one in a wheelchair and one in the middle of a battle with cancer. But all of them leave with a smile.

And all this came from that one awful night she’d been trying to forget. Looking back at all she’s achieved and the difference she’s made in countless lives since, Walethia now reflects, “Maybe that wasn’t such a terrible night after all.”

Today she advises the shy and insecure and tells them they’re not alone. “Reach out to a mentor, or join organizations [like hers] that provide coaching and reinforcement.” As a successful entrepreneur, author of several books, and one of Stiletto Woman magazine’s 2013 Amazing Women of the Year, Walethia is perhaps the best example of what you can achieve with a little grace and charm.

As with all of these stories, I encourage you to share this with your kids, and then have a discussion about it. Here are some questions to get you started.

  • If you haven’t already been, do you think you’ll go to the prom someday? Why or why not?
  • What do you think about the solution to drop out of school to avoid embarrassment over prom?
  • Have you ever been in a situation where you didn’t know how to act or what to say or what to do? How did that feel?
  • What could you do to prepare for one of those situations if it was coming up soon?

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Source: Parenting with a Story: Real-life Lessons in Character for Parents and Children to Share, by Paul Smith.

Paul Smith is one of the world’s leading experts on business storytelling. He’s a keynote speaker, storytelling coach, and bestselling author of the books Lead with a StoryParenting with a Story, and Sell with a Story.

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