How a rural Virginia town came together for an unforgettable pandemic prom

Virginia high school students dance at prom, held a short drive over the border in North Carolina. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)

EDEN, N.C. — Prom started off the way all proms do — a bit awkward.

A teen with magenta hair plopped down at a corner table and locked eyes with an iPhone screen. Four girls giggled as they rushed to the empty dance floor, while two boys eyed them nervously from the fringes of the room, their hands plunged into rented-tuxedo pockets.

And nobody knew what to do with their hands when they posed for pictures between bunches of yellow and gold balloons. “Why not put your arm around her?” suggested the photographer, wiping her brow in the glare of a standing lamp.

Behind the check-in table, parent Sherry Flanagan sat taking temperatures and dispensing blue surgical masks, compliments and advice. “You look so beautiful, girl!” she told a teenager in black sequins. “When you’re walking around you have to have a mask on. Did you bring one?” Sherry, like all the prom chaperones, wore a mask and a black T-shirt designed for the event. “2021,” it read, “A Night to Remember.”

After a year when nothing had gone right, when learning had been mostly online in their rural town of Bassett in southern Virginia, Flanagan and a small army of parent volunteers hoped to make the T-shirt’s prophecy come true. For the Bassett High School seniors — who had watched every other American high school milestone slip away — it was their first and last prom, a chance to grab hold of at least one teenage tradition before it slipped away, too.

Some students would not be there at all. The town had seen two children die by suicide during the pandemic. Like millions of high-schoolers nationwide, Bassett teenagers — from straight-A students whose grades dipped, to some who dropped out of school entirely, to a boy who was facing a recent cancer diagnosis — had been forced to navigate a world robbed of certainty and filled instead with disappointments and losses, big and small, encountered almost every day.

But not on prom night. Not if Sherry — and a network of parents, teachers and small-business owners spanning the tiny town — could prevent it.

Prom was being put on by parents, and in another state: in a large, barnlike venue here in Eden, N.C., a 45-minute ride from Bassett. State health restrictions were too tight to allow for prom in Virginia but sufficiently relaxed just over the border. The high school itself was not hosting or helping, but individual teachers had volunteered as chaperones.

Bassett High football coach Brandon Johnson stood outside in a blue gaiter and button-down shirt greeting students, many of whom he’d last seen more than a year ago. He had a word for everyone. But he lit up for his players, teasing them about their formal wear, their slicked-back and braided hair, their dates.

“Ty,” he told a 16-year-old linebacker emerging from a white convertible, “you better go around and get that door for her.”

At a lull in arrivals, Johnson peeked through a sliding door at the dance floor. Earlier, he’d worried nobody was dancing; he’d circled the dining tables whispering a challenge into his players’ ears: “I want to see if y’all can get the kids out there. Show me how popular you really are!” But now — around 8 p.m. — something had changed.

A small sea of teens were jumping and wriggling to V.I.C.’s “Wobble.” Masks slipped down, dresses slipped down, and boys and girls yanked them up, laughing. They gasped out the chorus: “Wobble baby, wobble baby, wobble baby, wobble yeah!”

Watching, Johnson got chills. It took him a few seconds to realize why: because he was seeing something he hadn’t seen in more than a year.

The kids, Johnson thought, looked like they were having fun.

TWO NIGHTS BEFORE, a half-dozen women in an empty dance studio sat sandwiched between rows of hanging prom dresses: black dresses, bright turquoise dresses, a daring dress with the middle cut out, and one dress with a bust exploding into rills of hot-pink and leopard-print fabric.

Sandy Gary and Lacey Flanagan bent over a large white binder. Among the women, this binder was known as “The Family Bible.” It held 238 registration forms listing the names, emails, phone numbers and preferred T-shirt sizes of all 238 students, and their guests, who had signed up for prom.

At least, Lacey Flanagan hoped it did. She thumbed page after page, but couldn’t find the registration papers for a boy named Dave.

“Hey y’all,” she called to the room through her blue surgical mask. “Y’all remember what size T-shirt Dave wanted?”

The women, busy stuffing 238 drawstring gift bags with “A Night to Remember” T-shirts, paused. This was the core group of parents who’d begun planning prom a month and a half before — led by Lacey’s mother, Sherry, who first got the idea while chatting with women from her church.

Sherry knew the school wasn’t planning a prom this year, the second miss in a row. Last year’s prom was canceled when the pandemic hit, and it had been a long, lonely slog ever since: Classes stayed virtual through October, when some kids began heading back for two days a week of in-person school. In the spring, Henry County schools upped that to four days a week — but many seniors decided not to go back. It just didn’t feel worth it.

At first, Sherry looked for venues in Virginia. But under rules laid out by Gov. Ralph Northam (D) at the time — mid-March — social gatherings were capped at 25 people outdoors, 10 people indoors. So she called the health department for Eden, the closest town across the border. Then she Googled, “event centers in Eden North Carolina.”

In short order she found Jeff Wright, of the Wright Memorial Event Center in Eden, who gave Sherry a 35 percent discount when he learned why she wanted to rent the space. He also explained the rules: He could host up to 50 percent capacity. The kids would have to wear masks when not eating.

Sherry booked one of the two weekend openings Wright had left, a Sunday six weeks away. Then she got to work, soliciting donations and prom dresses. Parents and kids posted about prom to Facebook, Instagram, TikTok. Sherry took out space in school newsletters, delivered in English and Spanish.

Money flowed from households that couldn’t really afford it: more than $10,000, enough to cover the venue rental, gifts for promgoers and a caricature artist. One anonymous man donated $2,000.

Local businesses stepped up, too: The owners of Gotcha Covered, a linen and party rental service, gave Sherry a 50 percent discount, plus $10 off for every tux a Bassett kid rented. A DJ known as “Smiley” offered his services free; his stepson is a Bassett senior.

And the dresses came — more than 300 of them, nabbed from dusty shelves and the far-far-back of closets. Sherry expected girls would be in search of dresses.

The teens came on a handful of days to the dance studio, owned by a one of Sherry’s church friends, to try the dresses on and pick one out. Now, only about 100 gowns were left.

Sandy Gary, whose daughter Taylor Jo is a senior, eyed a sad-looking yellow gown without really seeing it. She struggled to recall anything she knew about the boy named Dave.

“Aha!” she slammed a palm on the table. Sandy had remembered the name of Dave’s girlfriend — Bassett is the kind of town where dating lives never stay private for long — and told Lacey to look in the binder near the papers belonging to someone named Faith. Lacey looked, and found Dave’s sheet.

“I knew it was in there,” Sherry called out. “I knew I wasn’t crazy.”

“Most importantly,” Sandy said, peering at his page, “the boy needs a large.”

TAYLOR JO GARY, 18, flinched a little when she heard the boy’s name — then looked apologetically at the woman bending over her with a sponge.

It was the afternoon of prom, and Taylor Jo was midway through her first-ever professional makeup appointment. It wasn’t the kind of thing Taylor Jo normally did; she preferred going fishing to watching the YouTube makeup tutorials beloved by some of her friends. It wasn’t the kind of thing the Garys normally spent money on, either. But Sandy Gary had insisted, for her daughter’s senior prom.

Demi Cockram had opened her salon on a Sunday — her day off — specially to serve Bassett students. She leaned in and corrected the line of silver above Taylor Jo’s right eye, disturbed a little by the girl’s flinch. Demi had been keeping up a soft patter of chat, but just now she wasn’t sure what to say.

Sandy had just mentioned the boy who died by suicide over Thanksgiving. There were seconds of silence broken only by the squish of the sponge.

“We were really good friends,” Taylor Jo said slowly.

She closed her eyes at Demi’s nudge, and the next words came faster. “The week before that, a girl on my swim team committed suicide.”

Sandy Gary, watching from a corner of the room, checked the time. They had to meet Taylor Jo’s boyfriend for pictures in a little under an hour. “That’s one of the big reasons we decided to do prom,” she told Demi. “The mental health has just been — ”

Taylor Jo’s eyes snapped open and she leaned forward. “Terrible,” she said.

She thought about friends who had given up on dreams of college during the pandemic. She thought about the friends she had seen drop out of high school. And she thought about two households in Bassett where no preparations for prom were taking place.

Soon after Sherry Flanagan put out the call for donations, the mother of the girl who died — who spoke on the condition of anonymity to protect her family’s privacy — had shown up with a light-blue dress, overlaid with white sparkles.

She told Sherry it was the dress her daughter would have worn.

WHEN A WHITE LIMO pulled up in front of the barn just before 9, Sherry Flanagan whipped out her phone. She snapped six pictures as a boy walking with a cane and wearing a black beanie emerged, followed by a girl holding a picnic basket.

“Look at your baby!!” Sherry texted the boy’s mother, Patricia Kidd. “He looks amazing!!!”

Back at home in her bedroom, Patricia started crying. “He is so handsome,” she wrote back, adding a purple heart. Her son Xander Wilson looked different without his beard, once so dark and full, tinged with red.

In early February, he noticed a “tough spot” on his neck while helping his mother with the groceries. Less than a month later, he received his diagnosis: Hodgkin’s lymphoma, Stage 3B. It meant he had a high chance of recovery — up to 80 percent — but it also meant his cancer had reached a very advanced stage. All Xander felt at the time was irritation. First the pandemic, now this.

As of prom night, he was two cycles into a six-cycle course of chemotherapy, which they were seeking to fund through community donations. The chemo itself didn’t hurt too much. But the shots Xander had to get five times every two weeks to boost his white blood cell count made him feel like something had shattered his bones.

Xander’s doctor had allowed him to delay one of those shots by a few days, so he could go to prom without pain. A Bassett parent had leaned on a friend to donate a limo ride. Someone else paid for his tux.

Now Xander and his girlfriend of two years, Madison Osborne, walked slowly inside to find a party gone raucous, turned wild with joy.

At the dining tables, kids chattered at top volume and speed, shouting over each other and the music, food forgotten. A boy stretched out a hand to rest on the thigh of his date, sheathed in a red dress that matched her red hair. Another girl removed her shoes and traced her bare soles in rapid circles on the floor.

But most were dancing — gathered in groups, jumping together, holding hands. An impatient date strolled to one girl, pulled her away from her friends, yanked down her mask and his own. He leaned in for a long, deep kiss as the girl’s friends rolled their eyes.

A slow song came on. The dancers paired off to the strains of Ed Sheeran: “ ’Cause we were just kids when we fell in love / Not knowing what it was.”

Xander leaned his cane against the wall. He removed his beanie, then his mask.

“I know,” he whispered to Madison, “you’re not sick.”

She took her mask off, too, and looped it around her wrist. She wove her arms around his neck. He rested his head on her shoulder. He closed his eyes; then she did. Everywhere around them, couples were doing the same.

For the length of a song, they were all just teenagers at prom.

Photo editing by Mark Miller. Copy editing by Frances Moody. Design by J.C. Reed.