Seven Memorable American High School traditions to savour in the time of Covid

EXPAT LIFE IN AMERICA: It has been a while since my last post. However, with Covid-19 happening in between it feels like far more time has passed than what the calendar really shows. In this relatively short period, an enormous amount has changed.

High School Life in the Last Semester of 2019/2020 

One thing that has altered remarkably is regular US high school life. It became almost unrecognizable around Spring Break this year in New Jersey, with the emptying out of schools and introduction of online learning. Much of the everyday interaction students would normally have with teachers and others at school has been absent, including in-school celebrations and attending sporting events and games.

Then there was the disappointing impact on big event dates, such as cancellation of the annual proms. Even though graduation ceremonies were eventually allowed in New Jersey, they were carried out with strict socially-distancing guidelines to follow.

So just in the four months prior to the start of summer vacation, Covid has managed to bring about an emergency makeover of schooling, not quite seen before. 

If nothing else, it has a boon for the custom T-shirt market with plenty of wit on show about studying in this unique period of time.


Covid Effects Will Continue into the New Year

This strange new world will continue in the next school year starting this September (2020) with more pandemic-induced restrictions likely to be introduced. This may include mask-wearing amongst teachers and students, and the possibility of protective Perspex screens to reduce the chance of infection. Social distancing will still be a high priority, and big gatherings normally held during the school year (see below) may still possibly be cancelled, cutdown or done virtually.

How life will proceed will probably depend largely on whether there is a continued wave of reinfections or when, where and how a vaccine becomes available.


Reminiscing About the Past

For me, US high school has always felt like an important cultural part of expat life as it seems to include many iconic traditions that are cherished by Americans themselves. Pandemic life has made me realize how lucky we were to experience many things that are absent or altered dramatically from school life in many places right now. These memorable moments have included some of the following:

1.     Seniors posting their new Status on their Car

Being a Senior is a really important step in high school life. Obviously as the ‘elders’ amongst the student body, comes the recognition that they have made it to the top of the pile, and to the end of school. Most importantly though, the big milestone for seniors is that they will be graduating this year, which for most means the recognition of being an adult, getting a job or going into college, the next most important phase of life.

A common and proud tradition amongst seniors is to paint this status on their car windows in the first week of the school year.

An example of high school senior car decoration. Image from Pinterest

Note: many high school students have their own car to drive to school, at least in New Jersey, if not elsewhere. The sign is temporary though – it only remains on cars for a few weeks like an announcement, then is washed away as if never there.


2.     Homecoming (HOCO)

Although not held in our local high school, there are plenty of high schools and colleges who do organize Homecoming celebrations such as a football game or dance. The details can vary quite a lot depending on the institution organizing it but can involve an entire week of activities, or just one event such as a Homecoming Game or Dance. This is held in Fall near the beginning of the school year, and usually involves the return of previous alumni to visit, hosted by the current seniors (12th Grade). 

Homecoming Football match in US

Part of the tradition in some schools is that the student body votes for several students to make up the Homecoming King’s Court, and of course there is the Homecoming King and Queen to vote for. Although not as formal and prestigious as the annual Prom, the Homecoming Dance is still a major time in the social calendar. Dress code is usually cocktail/after 5pm wear.

Homecoming celebrations in American High School. Image from Pinterest.

3.     Pep Rally

Held sometimes as part of the Homecoming Week celebrations or just as an independent event, a pep rally is a pre-match cheer session, where the main aim is to drum up enthusiasm and support for the school’s athletes before a big game or meet. Classes are not run during this event so the whole school can join in.

High school students attending a pep rally. Image by Jesapro. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

Most schools really get their school spirit running on high-octane for these pre-match events. Pep rallies can include lots of energetic cheer leader activity pumping up the crowd, as well as the athletes talking up the team’s successes to date. It can all be a little over-the-top noisy but also exciting.


4.     Tailgate Party

Another common feature of the Homecoming Week calendar are tailgate parties. Like pep rallies though, they can often form a standard part of high school and college football life. These are parties held out of the back of vehicles parked in the stadium or grounds’ car park (parking lot). Just as the name suggests, the tailgate of your pickup truck or station wagon is opened, providing a seat space or part of an entertainment area, where people gather to socialize, cheer on their team from afar, eat hotdogs and wings, and drink soda and beer.

tailgate party in the US outside a football game

Tailgate party in the US outside a football game. Image courtesy of Ben Vardi.

At high school these are common but not held every week, while at professional games these are a regular tradition around the country. Australians hold similar parties at the AFL and Melbourne Cup.


5.     Promposal

A couple agreeing to go together to the prom often means a promposal. In fact, this has become a common practice in high schools across the US. The term simply describes what it sounds like-the request made by one student to another, to attend the prom as their partner. Promposals can be very simple or can involve some extraordinary efforts to succeed in getting a positive answer.

A pizza promposal. Photo:

Sometimes this can include a witty wording or a more complex concept including e.g. balloons, food or other theme-related gifts, or something more elaborate such as a flash mob doing a performance routine.

Every year there are plenty of very creative promposal ideas that teenagers have dreamed up.


6.     Prom

Proms are so important that every year there is not just one, but two held. There are separate proms for both Seniors (12th Grade) and Juniors (11th Grade) but other high schoolers from lower grades can attend if they have a senior/junior partner who is taking them.

A young couple about to attend a US high school prom. Photo by Hunter Newton on Unsplash

The iconic big event that most high schoolers hope to go to at least once, is quite a formal affair. For those attending the senior prom, normal dress code is a tuxedo or long dress with high heels and clutch bag. For the junior prom, it is slightly less formal with either cocktail dresses or a nice suit being the general dress code approach. Some couples go one step further and organize coordinated colour schemes for their party attire. 

Preparations for prom can involve substantial costs. Like weddings, proms have their own associated economies spawned off these big calendar dates that create income for suit hire outlets, tailors, dress retailers, and florists. Parents be warned – this is not a low-cost outing – it can involve purchase of dresses, handbags, evening shoes, nails, hair and makeup. Alternatively, the rented tuxedo is possibly less money but still not cheap with corsage (flowers) and transport required, which can involve limo hire. Some parents even get professional photos done. Tickets are also usually quite expensive for the night’s event although food and music are included.

Going to the Prom. Photo by Tai’s Captures on Unsplash

7.     Graduation Ceremony

The biggest event on the year’s calendar for parents is undoubtedly the Graduation Day ceremony. This involves the college-inspired  student dress which includes academic robes, and a cap with the symbolic tassel hanging from the mortarboard top. Students wear normal dress underneath but have robes that often bear the high schools’ own colours, and when you experience the sea of colour for any graduating class, it can be quite a spectacle. Teachers attending the ceremony also dress in college academic-style dress.


Valedictorian’s speech at high school graduation
Image by Quinn Dombrowski, courtesy Wikimedia; used under CC Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 License

Two other well-known traditions that often occur that day include a speech from the student who achieves the top academic position in the graduating class, known as the Valedictorian speech. Another tradition that is now being increasingly discouraged, is the tossing of caps into the air at the end of the ceremony. Apparently, some students can get hurt with the caps, so it is becoming less frequent in high schools. 

Seniors graduating High School with celebratory cap toss

Things Will Return To Normal

For those who are new to the US, things may be different for a little while longer due to Covid continuing in the short-term, so you may not get to appreciate these traditions just yet. However, when life returns to some normalcy (as it will), I hope you will look forward to your children going through the US school system and experiencing some of these events too.

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