Last Thursday, as the afternoon sun beat down on the Bronx campus of the New York Institute for Special Education, students readied themselves for an annual rite of passage: the prom.
“I don’t remember exactly what color it is, but I like this dress,” Nathalie Wood, 18, said, sitting on a bench outside one of the dorms. As she spoke, the high school junior felt the lace on the bodice of her dress, then gathered the tulle of the skirt in her hand. “My mom hemmed the dress because it was way too long. And she made this corsage with the leftover material from the dress,” she said.
Founded in 1831, NYISE serves students with visual impairment as well as those with emotional or learning needs. Thirteen buildings, some with stately columns, are situated on the expansive 17-acre campus.
Each year the school hosts a prom for students in grades 8 through 12. As in so many other schools around the country, the event marks the end of the academic year and the beginning of freedom. For many teenagers, freedom means a driver’s license or their own car. While NYISE students might experience freedom in different ways, prom is still prom.
Teenagers in button-downs, suits and gowns held onto each other’s arms as they walked. Two at a time, they met outside the dorms. In the warm afternoon light, sequins glittered.
Nathalie had searched long and hard for a dress that would make her look glamorous. “You know, like those super grown-up ladies that you see in those classic movies wearing the long evening gown? I don’t know how they have their hair, but I guess it’s like mine,” she said, touching the rhinestone barrettes in her dark curls.
Out in the yard, roughly 30 attendees had gathered. From the crowd, a boy walked up the stairs and stood leaning against the porch railing nearby. He listened as Nathalie explained that some students go with dates and some go as friends. “They assign us tables to sit at,” she said.
“With luck, we’ll sit together,” the boy said.
“Oh, please,” Nathalie said. “That’s Moises. He’s my best friend. A lot of people are like ‘Oh, are you guys dating?’ and I’m like, ‘No, thank you.’”
A few days earlier, when Nathalie told her father that the prom was coming up, he had a few words of warning: “He said, ‘Moises better not smell your perfume.’”
A little after 5:30 p.m. Nathalie posed alone, but Moises Mercedes, 18, was just outside the frame, trying to make her laugh. He is a fixture of the school’s prom, which he has attended annually since 8th grade. “There’s this sort of magic about the prom that keeps impressing me every year,” Moises said. “Since it’s my second-to-last prom it seems like I need to appreciate it a little more.”
Nathalie held onto his arm as he led her toward the porch. Many students were holding onto each other, sometimes out of necessity and sometimes, it seemed, less so. Iliana Mejia, 15, had her arm around her date’s waist. Jayden Higgs, 16, was wearing a red satin vest and a black dress shirt. His hair was dyed red. Iliana wore a black dress and a red sweater.
“We’ve been dating for two weeks,” Iliana said. “May 22, so two weeks.” When asked if the upcoming prom night factored into their decision to get together just then, Iliana said no.
“You know, we were in two different places in life but we just converged to the same place. We had to sort some things out before we got together. Then I asked him out and he said yes.”
Students led each other into the waiting vans. “At public schools, kids get limos,” Emmanuel Ford, 17, said. One boy helped some of his classmates buckle their seatbelts. Then, the van doors slid closed and they were off.
At an event room at Pine, the restaurant and host for the night, the theme was New York City. Pitchers of soda were brought to the tables by waiters in bow ties. Students tucked their white canes under the tables. Before dinner, a D.J. brought everyone onto the dance floor. “Alright!” he shouted. “Yes! Put your hands up!”
David Baez, who coaches some of the school’s athletic teams, spent the night running from student to student. For him, prom is bittersweet. “It’s their night to be who they want to be,” he said. “It’s our chance to say goodbye.”
Throughout the night, it seemed like many of the typical high school embarrassments had been solved. Plenty of dancers danced alone. It was a staff member who stepped in and turned Nathalie, who was dancing alone in a corner, toward the crowd. She seemed momentarily confused by the adjustment but quickly resumed dancing, a broad smile on her face. When Moises found her, he took her hands and spun her around.
After a dinner of multiple pastas, the prom royalty was crowned, as nominated by the staff. First, two princes and two princesses, then a drumroll for king and queen and an explosion when the names were called. Cameras flashed. The tiaras and sashes were put in place. The dance floor, in an instant, was full again.
Outside, Nathalie and Moises walked to the terrace at the other end of the building to have another picture taken. “I can’t hear anything!” Nathalie said, beaming. “My ears are ringing!” Moises screamed. By the terrace, another school’s prom was underway. Those students posed for pictures as well, using the blue and gold sunset as their backdrop.
A group of them cut through the terrace and slipped between the NYISE students and the photographer. “Congratulations, guys,” one said as he ducked under the camera. “You made it.”
Back inside, Nathalie and Moises joined the crowd. The music thumped and the students grabbed each other and danced. One boy reached a hand up and pointed toward the sky.