Adam B. Vary
May 21, 2004 AT 04:00 AM EDT

Pennsbury High School outside Philadelphia takes its senior prom seriously. No, seriously. Hordes of people in the 73,000-strong local community come out to see the outlandish parade (fire trucks, stretch Hummers) carrying some 1,200 attendants to the school’s red carpet. The 2003 prom is the all-stops-out climax of Michael Bamberger’s deeply affecting Wonderland (Atlantic Monthly, $23).

After winning the principal’s blessing, Bamberger visited Pennsbury High about three times a week during the 2002 — 03 school year, befriending students, teachers, and parents. The senior writer for EW sister mag SPORTS ILLUSTRATED followed a free after-school concert by then-almost-famous Maroon 5, the prom committee’s dogged hunt for white-hot John Mayer (whose hit inspired the title), a junior’s giving birth, and another student’s sudden death.

How did a 44-year-old insinuate himself into a modern high school? ”He was the consummate listener,” says Bob Costa, current student body president and Wonderland’s go-get-’em hero. ”Sure, he had tacky blue sweaters every once in a while, but…he really wanted to get to the heart of what high school kids are feeling.”

Bamberger became such a school fixture that he and his wife are returning on May 15 for this year’s prom. ”It will be a little bit more relaxed,” he predicts. ”I won’t be there until the sun comes up.”

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