As a teenager in high school, I never went to prom. I didn’t know at the time just how much I would come to regret that decision.

I attended a number of different high schools and had two opportunities to go to the prom, but still I didn’t, because I was somewhat of a tomboy. I dressed like a boy, acted like a boy and even played sports like one. I was kind of rough.

The first boy who asked me to the prom, during my sophomore year, knew how I was -- I didn’t dance, I didn’t dress girly, and didn’t wear makeup. He already had a crush on me the way I was, so what would happen if I got “shooted and booted” – all dressed up? He probably would have tried to pursue his real feelings on prom night, and I did not want to put myself in that predicament. The second boy was from junior year and it was the same situation. The only difference was that this boy was like a brother to me. We knew everything about each other. I knew his girlfriends and how he treated them. He’d recently broken up with his girl, and I’d heard that prom night was the night to go all the way with your date. I didn’t want give him a pity kiss; and I didn’t want him to see that side of me, anyway.

As it turns out, that was the last chance I’d have to go to the prom – or so I thought. I’d been having problems at school with teachers. I was also expecting a child, my first. So at the age of seventeen, one year short of getting my diploma, I dropped out.

Today, I have two beautiful boys, ages two and four. The eldest will be attending kindergarten soon and I felt that I couldn’t be preaching to him on how he needs to go and finish school, without finishing myself.

So at age 21, I went back to school, to get my diploma.

I enrolled at Independence High School in San Francisco. I knew I could have chosen to just get my GED instead, but I feel like a GED only proves that you know how to study for a test and pass, where a diploma proves you went to school for four years and had actual interactions with other students and teachers. It also shows that I worked hard to graduate, and walked across that stage.

When I started back at Independence High, the only thing on my mind was graduating. I had no idea the school would also have a prom -- something I found out when it was only about two weeks away. Even then, I didn’t think I’d go, but a good friend of mine told me she’d also regretted not going, and she persuaded me to think about it. I told her that I felt funny trying to go now because I was older.

“When will you ever have this opportunity again?” she asked me. Plus, she said, “You’re not hella older, just a little older.”

Having just made up my mind, I started thinking of people I could talk to – people who could help me find out what I need to get, and do. I wanted everything – my shoes, my dress, my hair -- to be perfect. I wasn’t originally planning to do my hair and makeup, but my aunt told me that this was a time in my life that girls go out with their mom, grandma or aunt to pick out a dress, some jewelry and get their hair did -- kind of like a mother-daughter bonding thing. Since my aunt knew I don’t have a real mom, she stepped up and helped me out.

My man, whom I already have two children with -- my dream man -- would be taking me to prom, so now I just needed to make sure we looked and felt the best. We wanted to match each other, so we picked his favorite color, red.

I couldn’t afford a dress, so I went through this program called Princess Project, which helps women in San Francisco who can’t afford to get a dress for prom get a free dress with one accessory. You get to pick out and keep a dress, all of which are donated by people, by schools and by department stores. The Princess Project makes sure that all the dresses are dry-cleaned, washed and in good condition to wear. It’s a great program and it happens every year. All you need is a student ID card to prove you go to high school.

I was almost all ready to go. I had an appointment for my hair and makeup, early on the day of prom. I had my dresses; I’d chosen to wear two, which I would just have to change half way through the prom. I had the most beautiful, classy jewelry that was blinging -- shining hard. That was my theme: bling. Even my wallet was blinging. I’d always wanted to try some on, but never had a good enough reason.

The day of the prom, I got a sitter for the whole day. I had nothing to do but get ready. Later that night, we got a ride from my man’s dad, Terry senior. I had butterflies as we pulled up to the prom, but I played it off like I was ready. I hopped out the car like
I was the baddest chick there, because I knew I was. We got in line, and they searched bags and had us go through a metal detector.

We got there early, so there were not that many people yet. I saw my teachers, but they did not see me. No one recognized me, even when I went up to them. People could not believe how different I looked! I even made my girl Pam cry. She said I looked “so beautiful and amazing.”

Inside, the lights spun and the sounds from the DJ table were slapping. My man and I were all over the place. We danced a lot, and I had to change from my high heels into my flats because I didn’t want to fall.

It was a perfect prom night, a once-in-a-lifetime event for most. Luckily for me, I got another chance.

Valerie Klinker, 21, is a youth content producer for New America Media and the proud mother of two young children. She lives in San Francisco.