Two thousand happy Chicago high school students are getting a little taste of normal life this weekend. After thinking all year that COVID-19 would likely cancel end-of-the-year school events, they’re going to senior prom at a big-deal venue: Soldier Field.
Friday night, seniors milled about outside the stadium gates dressed to the nines — mermaid gowns, velvet suits, sequins, matching makeup and masks.
Prom queen Belen Chavez wore a long red gown with a “Prom Royalty” sash, a dainty crown her school gave her, and a black mask.
“I’ve been wanting this dress for the longest,” she declared.
Chavez said the prom was “a great opportunity to at least have something to celebrate — somewhere safe.
“And also be around people that I haven’t seen in months. I haven’t seen some of my friends in a year,” she said. “I’m very thankful … because they gave us this opportunity and found a way to have us celebrate our prom.”
Surrounded by towering stadium seats, Chavez clutched her sparkly shoes; heels aren’t allowed near the actual field.
The prom was organized by the Noble Network of Charter Schools, which operates 17 high schools in Chicago. Noble scheduled nine proms Friday night and eight more Saturday night. Each campus is allotted up to an hour inside Soldier Field, with a Chicago Bears DJ playing music and arches made of balloons set up for pictures.
Noble Schools CEO Constance Jones said the previous school year was tough, with no traditional proms or graduations due to the pandemic.
“And those milestones are important after four years of high school, so we just decided to go all out this year for the class of 2021 and provide the hopefully iconic prom experience at one of the most iconic places in Chicago — Soldier Field,” she said.
Jones acknowledged the event is more a promenade than a prom, with students swooshing and swaying in their fancy outfits through the gates of Soldier Field, down the hallways and onto the field — their images projected on the Jumbotron — taking cell phone pictures the whole way. But there’s no dinner and no dance.
“Definitely a different type of prom, but everything has been different over this past year, so it’s kind of in line with that,” Jones said.
Jazmine Creggett said she was happy with even an hour of prom. She had been waiting for the moment since she was a little kid.
“And everybody looks so pretty! So it’s nice to see your friends and everyone else just look so good!” she said.
And seeing classmates in person instead of on a computer screen brought a whole range of emotions for Ashley Arroyo.
“Excited, but also a little bit nervous,” she said of the event. “It’s been a while since I’ve been around people — so it’s like, oh, how close can I get to people?”
Arroyo said her first impulse was to hug everyone. “But … can I?”
Well, no hugs at prom, really. No slow dances. Temperature taken at the door.
But — it is prom! — and the chance to do something almost normal to close out a pandemic school year and their high school career.
Linda Lutton covers Chicago neighborhoods for WBEZ. Follow her @lindalutton.