Stealing Moments

The room where nine of my students found free dresses for their Homecoming dance.

Dress after dress after dress. Purples and blues and long and short and satin and tulle.

When I was in high school, my mom, sister and I spent hours looking for my homecoming dresses, scouring through the racks at our favorite consignment stores. I generally hate shopping, but I enjoyed this time with my mom and sister. It was a bonding experience, a rite of passage.

Recently, two of my coworkers and I took nine of our students shopping for Homecoming dresses. I work at Saint Martin de Porres High School, an incredible place in Cleveland (I’m not biased) that offers a Catholic, college-prep education to students otherwise unable to afford one. Our students are amazing, loving people, and they often need a little more help than students at other schools. A few weeks ago, my mom told me about an organization nearby that collects new and gently used formal dresses to give to financially stressed girls, and they graciously offered to host us for an evening.

We arrived as the sun was beginning to set, the girls giggling and shy, and we greeted the women there to help us. As soon as they saw the wall of dresses, the girls rushed forward and grabbed armfuls, eager to try on such beautiful gowns. They came out wrapped in sparkles and lace, and we helped them find jewelry, shoes, purses, makeup. All of it was free.

One of our students brought her parents, but for the rest, my coworkers and I filled in to make sure each dress was “Mom approved,” and to help the girls find matching jewelry and shoes. We advised, took pictures, oohed and aahed.

I’m so grateful that I was able to experience this moment, this rite of passage, with these students I love so much. But I couldn’t help feeling a tinge of sadness and guilt. Had I stolen this moment from their parents? Who was I—a counselor who has only known these girls for two months—to take this moment from them?

I feel the same guilt when we take students on college visits. As an Assistant College Counselor, I organize various college visits throughout the semester for our students. We take juniors and seniors on two or more visits during the year, and we organize class trips with the sophomores and juniors. The students love these trips, and often complain that they can’t go on more.

I never went on a college visit with my school – it’s just not something that was offered. This was another experience reserved for my parents, who carefully planned visits for days I had off school throughout my junior and senior years. We talked extensively about the schools together on the drive, making pro/con lists and taking notes.

Am I stealing this experience from my students’ parents, too?

Many of our students have incredibly active parents or guardians who take them on college visits starting their junior year or earlier. But some of them are partway through their senior year and still have never been on a college campus. I take them, I love taking them, I feel guilty for taking them.

The more resources we offer our students, the more homecoming dress shopping trips and college visits, the fewer of these experiences are shared with their parents. I don’t know the home situations of all of our students, but I know that for some, these opportunities are necessary: that if we didn’t offer these trips, our students might not be able to experience them. But does our eagerness limit the involvement of their parents? When we require that all college applications are checked by us before they are submitted, do we steal that moment from their parents? I remember finishing my college applications with my mom, waiting to press “submit” until 11:11pm for that extra bit of luck. It was a big moment, after hours of essay writing and rewriting and rewriting, my parents always looking over each draft. All my guidance counselor did was send in my transcript.

One reason my parents were able to be so involved in this process is our financial situation. My mom works at home, and my dad works a job that allowed him to be home in the evenings for essay editing and to take days off to drive me across Ohio to various colleges. Since I am the oldest child, none of us knew what we were doing, but many of our family and friends had older kids who had gone to good colleges and were able to give us plenty of advice.

The parents of our students may not have these same advantages, and so we try to fill that gap of knowledge and resources. I frequently wonder, however, if we involve the parents enough. Do we try our hardest to make them feel a valuable piece in this process? As much as I think of these students as my children, they’re not. I’m not their parent. I’m their teacher, their counselor. So is it right that I get to share so many of these special moments with them? Who am I to play this part?


Learn more about Saint Martin de Porres High School and the Cristo Rey Network of schools here and here.

Learn more about Rockin’ Frocks, and how to shop or donate dresses in the Cleveland area here.

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