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The last homecoming queen at Edmonds-Woodway High School

caption: Ella Chung, right, and a friend at homecoming in 2018.
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Ella Chung, right, and a friend at homecoming in 2018.
Courtesy of Ella Chung

“So I made Homecoming Court,” Ella announced one October evening. We had just sat down to dinner, and our eldest was catching us up on the latest news of her high school senior year.

“You did? How?” I sputtered, a spoonful of rice hanging from my mouth. My husband Andy raised his eyebrows at me. I could tell he was also marveling, How could our daughter be voted one of top five girls by the senior class?

“What do you mean how? Why are you surprised?” Ella asked.

Seeing her mouth draw into a frown, I hurried over to hug her. “Congratulations, honey! I’m so excited for you!”

“What, you didn’t think I could be popular?” Her eyes narrowed, not fooled by my pivot.

Caitlin, our younger daughter, jumped in. “Mom, everybody knows Ella!” She beamed at her sister with pride.

The voices in my head whispered, But you’re the band president! We’re not Homecoming Court people. We’re band geeks.

Quieting those voices, I listened as Ella described the upcoming festivities. The whole school would vote for Homecoming Queen and King on Friday, and the results would be announced at the Homecoming assembly on Tuesday—for which she was expected to wear a formal ball gown.

At this I shrieked, “Tuesday? How are we supposed to find a formal gown in five days!”

Andy gave me a hopeful look. “I’m sure you guys will find something?”

“Oh my god, you have no idea what’s involved!” I screamed at him. Andy’s only experience with a fashion emergency for our girls had been finding a pair of plain black pants while I was out of town. After 17 frantic texts and a meltdown at Old Navy, the pants were procured with mere hours to spare for the band concert.

The next few days flashed by in a flurry of activities. Trips to the mall, hair and makeup consultations with friends, pedicure and manicure appointments, frantic phone calls to alterations shops anticipating a last-minute hem.

Meanwhile, Caitlin launched a quiet campaign. “Mom, I got all my freshmen friends to vote for Ella! Everyone in Concert Band said they’re voting for her, too!” she reported excitedly.

On Saturday night, we found ourselves in the Macy’s dressing room, armed with a 20% coupon. It was do-or-die time.

“Mom, how about this one?” Ella asked, trying on a bodycon dress with a slit up to her thighs.

“Hmmm, I’m not sure. Is that what the kids are wearing these days?” I mumbled.

“Mom, you’re NOT helpful!” Ella cried out.

As she cast aside dress after dress, I lamented, “I’m not cut out to be a pageant mom!”

Ella rolled her eyes. Caitlin chimed in, “No, you’re not.”

What did I know about outfitting my daughter for Homecoming Royalty? I was a nerd-turned-professor, most comfortable in cardigan and slacks. In high school, I had watched the blonde head cheerleader crowned Homecoming queen from the bleachers of the football stadium, where I was clustered with fellow band geeks dressed in a putrid brown uniform. I wondered if her daughter was on Homecoming Court. Now that would make more sense. She would know what to do.

The night before the big day, some friends of Ella’s came over to finish the student council preparations for the assembly. They begged Ella to model her dress, marveling at the curve-hugging purple sequined gown with a plunging neckline, a flashier choice than I would have expected by my jeans-and-fleece-wearing girl.

Then I overheard Ella say, “Tomorrow is going to be the highlight of my whole high school experience!”

Sophia replied, “Ella, you’re SO going to win!”

Gulp. The stakes were high. I fretted she would be disappointed. Why are her friends building her up so much? She’s going to be crushed when she loses!

caption: Terri Chung, center, and her daughters Ella and Caitlin in Hawaii 2019.
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Terri Chung, center, and her daughters Ella and Caitlin in Hawaii 2019.
Courtesy of Terri Chung

But there was something else. As much as I wanted Ella to relish the moment, I wanted to protest. THIS was the highlight? What about the accomplishments you worked your ass off for the last four years? The 4.0 grade point average? Making it into the top jazz band? Winning the student council election? I bristled at the thought of my fierce daughter who had marched with a “GIRLS JUST WANT TO HAVE FUN-DAMENTAL RIGHTS” sign being defined by such a shallow and archaic tradition.

What was Homecoming Court anyway? Why did they still bother with the faux royalty pageantry reinforcing outdated, binary gender roles? What if you couldn’t afford to buy—or didn’t want to wear—a formal ball gown at a moment’s notice? It smacked too much of exclusive beauty queen standards for my comfort. Would these standards allow room for a 5-foot-tall Asian band geek?

But that night, as Ella’s friends rallied around her, I pushed those concerns aside and tried to revel in the girls’ excitement.

The next morning, Ella woke me up early. “Mom, can you help me with my makeup?”

“Sure, honey,” I said, groggily shuffling to the bathroom to put on her tinted moisturizer and powder. I wished I had watched the YouTube tutorial on contouring I had saved. What was that tip about applying eyeshadow on monolids?

“Oh shoot! I gotta go!” Ella sprang to her feet, looking at her watch.

“But I didn’t even get to eye makeup!” I protested.

“It’s okay, Mom. My friends promised to help me!” she said, shoving her sequined gown into a tote bag and running out the door. Waving at her, I hoped I was only cringing inwardly.

When I arrived at the assembly three hours later, the high school gym was bustling with activity—the decorations committee putting up the last of the streamers, teams practicing their class dances in the corner, student body leaders doing a sound check.

As I looked around, unsure of where to go, one of Ella’s friends came over to direct me to the seating area reserved for family. I was surprised to see some families had come out in force with “Congratulations, Haley!” “You Are Forever Our Queen” signs, with extended family in tow. It hadn’t even occurred to me to invite my mom.

Seeing Ella lined up outside, I ran to give her a hug. I admired her beautiful braids and shimmering complexion, courtesy of her friends. With a “Good luck, Ella!” I went back to my seat.

Soon the assembly began, followed by the ceremonial parade of Homecoming Royalty. Most students had chosen an opposite gender parent to walk them in. Watching Ella being escorted by her sister—who was thrilled to be part of the celebration—I smiled. Way to buck the system, girls!

The crowd cheered as the associated student body president announced each Homecoming Prince and Princess for the four classes. I wondered if the loudness of the cheer was an indication of anything. Ella’s friends were very loud! I tried to bat any feeling of hope away.

The next hour was filled with class competitions to see how well each class had lived up to the Decades theme they had chosen. I laughed along with the crowd, watching Ella’s friends in silly skits and dances in their 70s wardrobe. But I felt antsy. Why was I so nervous?

“Now, the moment you’ve all been waiting for! Time to crown our Homecoming King and Queen!” the school president announced to deafening screams of the crowd. Finally!

“We will announce the results, in no particular order of the vote tally.”

I held my breath, waiting for Ella’s name to be announced. One by one, I heard the name of a boy and girl alternating on the speaker. But still no Ella. Finally, it was down to the last two pairs, with only Ella and her grade school soccer buddy Haley remaining.

“And for our final Homecoming Princess: Haley Rundorff” announced the voice on the speaker.

It took me a moment to register what was happening. Wait, if Haley was the runner-up, did that mean . . .

“I present to you the 2018 Edmonds-Woodway Homecoming Queen: Ella Chung!” Ella was the Homecoming Queen! I jumped up from my folding chair, stunned. In a daze, I clapped along with the crowd.

Haley’s mom Leslie tapped me on the shoulder to congratulate me. Snapping to attention, I fumbled for my camera, barely in time to capture the tiara being placed on Ella’s head. It felt surreal, like watching the finale of a beauty pageant in real time—except my daughter was crowned the winner? How could this be?

After the assembly, several of Ella’s friends came by to say hello. One of them said, “Congratulations! You must be so proud of her!”

I thanked her, but the exchange left me with a bittersweet aftertaste. Of course, I was happy for Ella, but proud? Would winning the Homecoming Queen title be Ella’s proudest accomplishment?

I went home and posted a few pics from the assembly on Facebook. Within minutes, comments flooded in. One friend gushed, “Oh my gosh! That is AMAZING! I’m going to tell EVERYONE!” Another friend wrote, “You can have your cake and eat it, too. If you can be the Band President AND Homecoming Queen, anything is possible!”

For some, Ella’s win seemed to signify a Revenge of the Nerds' scenario—perhaps revealing something about their own high school identities. For my fellow teacher friends, Homecoming Royalty was beyond the social stratosphere they had known in high school, not unlike my own experience. It was funny how quickly we returned to those memories, how firmly we held on to those classifications 25 to 30 years later. Once a nerd, always a nerd.

My cousin texted me from Austin. “An Asian American Homecoming Queen? We have truly arrived!”

I was baffled. You were born and raised in Texas! Was my daughter winning Homecoming Queen the final step of our immigrant family’s assimilation?

That night at dinner, the girls gave Andy a blow-by-blow replay of the assembly as I shared pictures. Andy, a valedictorian of his high school, looked as shocked as I had been. “To our Homecoming Queen!” he toasted, getting rowdier with each glass of beer. I loved watching the excitement playing out on their faces. But a part of me was a little relieved, too, that the frantic activities of the week had come to an end.

That is, until Ella reminded us, “Mom. Dad. Don’t forget you two have to escort me in at halftime at the Homecoming football game on Friday night!”

Oh dear. So focused on the assembly, I had forgotten all about that. I felt my shoulders tighten. What to wear? There’s going to be so many people!

My friend Karen began calling me “Queen Mother,” which only heightened my anxiety. How to look the part of the Queen Mother?

Friday night, getting ready for the football game, I tried on outfit after outfit. October in Seattle was too cold to wear a dress. Would a leather jacket make me look like the mom trying too hard? Reluctantly, I settled on a flowery blouse-and-cardigan combo.

I arrived early and secured a seat on the bleachers. I spotted Ella with the band and waved at her. As instructed by the associated student body advisor, I left 20 minutes before halftime to line up for the Homecoming festivities, relieved to be joined by Andy who had been running late from work. Waiting outside with the other families, I noted another mom in a sleek black dress and heels and immediately felt underdressed. Maybe I should have worn a dress after all.

But more pressing was the fact that Ella was nowhere to be found as the minutes drew close to halftime. I texted her. I wondered if she was getting her makeup and hair done by her friends. Because she had been at school all day rehearsing with the band, I hadn’t seen her since she left for Jazz Band at 6 a.m.

As I got ready to text her again, Ella ran up. “Sorry! I’m here!”

I was surprised to see her face still bearing the traces of purple and green paint, the school spirit colors, without any makeup. “I thought your friends were going to do your hair and makeup?”

“The band rehearsal ran late. I barely had time to change,” she shrugged. I blanched, noting her Birkenstocks peeking from under her dress.

“What happened. . .” I stopped myself. She was clearly not bothered by it, so why should I be? Just then, the band marched in from behind us and saluted Ella, the horns playing a surprise tribute. Ella’s signature laugh rang bright over the music.

“There’s our very own Homecoming Queen!” Mr. B, the band director, patted Ella on her shoulders. He insisted on taking a photo for the band room.

As the stadium speaker announced Ella’s name, Andy and I escorted her into the stadium.

Her friends screamed her name from the stands. “Love you, Ella Chung!”

“Go Ella!”

“Woohoo! Homecoming Queen!”

Seeing hundreds of eyes on us as we walked in, I felt my cheeks flush. I tried not to fidget with my cardigan. I hoped nobody would notice her Birkenstocks.

Ella took it all in stride. She walked slowly, basking in her friends’ affections, waving to them like the regal queen she was. Without a speck of makeup on her face. Her hair thrown up in a ponytail. All confidence and no facade. Now that was the kind of royalty I could get behind. Had the pressure to conform to narrow standards for Homecoming Queen been my own hang-up all along?

Watching Ella so at ease in the spotlight, I realized I need not have worried about her being defined by this superficial title. Band President. Straight-A Student. Beloved by her peers. 5-foot-tall Asian nerd-and-Homecoming Queen. She owned it all. For that I was proud.

The year after Ella won Homecoming Queen, her school decided to do away with the gender binary of queen and king designations and the elaborate pageantry for Homecoming Court. Instead, students can elect “royalty” of any gender identity; they also dropped the formal dress code for the Homecoming assembly. My daughters and I were happy to hear that the old school traditions associated with Homecoming have been retired in favor of more inclusive practices.

And yet, I will always remember that moment I walked out on the field clutching my daughter’s hand, her Birkenstocks swishing beneath her dress, with traces of purple-and-green paint on her smiling face.

My daughter, so comfortable in her own skin —the last homecoming queen.

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