By LANE DeGREGORY
Times Staff Writer
He skipped his last class Thursday, raced up three flights of stairs at the back of his high school, into room 302, where he had stashed the flowers and his fishing pole.
His friends already were there helping: Shannon on the floor, coloring a poster. Brendan, who was going to hold it. Matt had brought the bullhorn.
None of them were in this seventh-period health class. But the teacher had agreed to let Ryan Anderson, 17, use her window.
“Okay, so, when the bell rings, she always goes to her locker, then through the senior courtyard, and cuts through here to get to her car,” Ryan said, pointing to a walkway below.
“This thing is foolproof,” said Ryan. “Of course she’ll say yes.”
Ryan, a junior at St. Petersburg High, is tall and boisterous, a red-headed lacrosse player with a loud laugh. For the last year, he has been dating the captain of the girls’ soccer team, a shy senior. He couldn’t figure out how to ask her to prom.
The pitch had to be perfect, public and original — nothing stupid, like writing “Prom?” on a Starbucks cup; or cheesy like spelling it in pepperoni on a pizza.
And it had to be better than everyone else’s, to show his girlfriend how much he cared, to show his friends his awesome idea and effort. So they could post it on Facebook, YouTube, Pinterest and Instagram and share it with the world.
“I knew it had to be great,” said Ryan. “But I waited so long, all the good stuff has been done.”
So on Thursday, 10 days before the biggest social event of the year, Ryan poised himself three floors above the path to the student parking lot and picked up his fishing pole.
Throughout the school, throughout thousands of high schools across the country and even the world, other boys were waiting — with roses and balloons and rhinestone tiaras, with oranges and bracelets and handmade soap — anxious to ask that age old question: Will you go to prom with me?
• • •
It used to be so simple: You asked a friend to ask the girl’s friend what the girl would say if you asked her to be your date. Or you stuffed a note into her locker with “Yes” and “No” boxes. Or worked up the nerve to call.
The first step is still necessary: You have to prereport, teens say. But the rest of the process has become incredibly elaborate and public, bigger even than some engagements, with boys hiring skywriters and taking girls up in helicopters to fly over, “Prom?” carved into the beach below.
High school students have a name for it: Promposal.
Check it out on YouTube, where 53,000 kids have posted videos of themselves asking, or being asked. Search it on Google, you’ll see photos of red Solo cups spelling “Prom?” in a fence, a boy with sign on Space Mountain, a dude with a donkey wearing a plea, “Let me take yo a– to prom.”
No one seems to know when the new tradition started, or how. The Urban Dictionary first cites the term in 2006, the year after “Prama: what is known as prom drama.” In 2011, a reporter for the Globe and Mail wrote about promposals in England and Canadian papers carried similar stories. The word doesn’t show up in American publications until 2012.
In 2013, the New York Times ran a story beneath the headline, “Prom is easy. The ‘Ask’ takes planning.” And former U.S. Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky made a lyrical promposal to comedian Stephen Colbert. This year, a boy named Stefan Montana approached actor Bryan Cranston outside a Broadway show. The Breaking Bad star’s promposal was featured on Good Morning America and seen by more than a half-million people online.
“We get about 500 kids a year asking about flying a banner behind our planes to ask some girl to prom,” says Justin Jaye, who oversees booking for the national FlySigns.com. “As soon as we tell them the price — $500 to $700 — that whittles them down. But we did fly a sign over a high school in upstate New York: ‘Danielle, prom? Love, Benny G.’ I tell them, if you do the banner, it’s going to work.”
“It’s become a really big thing,” says Brent Guthrie, an 18-year-old senior at St. Petersburg High who dressed up like a homeless person and startled his girlfriend by popping up from a park bench with a poster: “Begging you to go to prom!”
“Every year there’s more pressure to do it better,” he said.
“You have to make it personal,” said Alexander Witherspoon, also a St. Petersburg High senior. “You have to get to know her, what she likes, her favorite flowers and song. That way it’s more romantic.” Alexander had friends help him make a video of him singing and dancing by the Pier, then had a teacher show it before class.
“If you do it big, and do it in public, there’s more chance she’ll say yes,” says Raka Chindavong, 18, a senior at St. Petersburg High. Raka’s promposal is legendary, the school’s best, students agree. One day at lunch, with a Superman cape around his slim shoulders, he lugged a speaker and microphone into the courtyard and shouldered a guitar. There, with 300 students watching, he sang, I’m No Superman to a girl he hoped wouldn’t laugh at him, and made teachers cry.
“A darling example of romantic sweetness,” said English teacher Karen Vann, who watched from the balcony. “The whole event was an odd tableau that transcended the baseness of a public high school.”
Just when grownups thought teenagers were becoming too distant, texting instead of talking, posting selfies instead of being selfless, boys are beginning to bring back the ancient ritual of courtship — in public, with lots of witnesses, to be captured on cellphones and shared on social networks.
• • •
Ten minutes before school was out, Ryan thought he was ready. Shannon had colored the poster in blue and pink; the O in Prom looked like an Easter egg. He had shouted through the bullhorn, “Hey! Hey! Hey!” and knew his girlfriend would hear him from three flights below.
Brent headed downstairs to make sure Ryan’s girlfriend didn’t divert from her usual route. He promised he would text as they headed outside. “Don’t you want to do a practice run?” asked the health teacher, Erin Phelps.
Ryan shook his head. “I don’t want to ruin the flowers.”
The plan was something only boys who live near the beach would dream up: Ryan was going to tie the bouquet, which he had bought at Publix, to the fishing line and lean out the window. As his girlfriend walked below, he would lower the flowers until they floated in front of her. When she looked up, he would call through the bullhorn, so everyone would hear.
“She’s going to be so embarrassed. You’re basically torturing her,” Shannon said.
“Yeah, but she’ll like it,” Ryan grinned. “She’ll secretly like it.”
“But how are you going to make sure the flowers don’t fall off?” asked a girl near the window.
“You better not hook her face!” said a boy.
The teacher handed Ryan a water bottle, half-full. “Try this,” she said. “Just practice casting.”
So he tied the bottle to the line and held the fishing rod out the window. Splat. “It came off,” he laughed. “This is going to be interesting.”
• • •
Some people find public promposals romantic, a chance for boys to outwardly express their emotions. A chance for girls to feel like princesses in front of their friends.
“I think it’s cool, something fun for the kids,” said Shelly Ash, whose daughter is a junior at St. Petersburg High and got asked beneath a banner on Spa Beach. “It gives the boys a chance to step out of their personas for a minute and put on a cape.”
“It lets us be creative,” said Brent Guthrie. “Okay, it forces us to.”
Others deem the trend dangerous — an arms race of Romeos. Where will it end? At what cost? How many boys won’t ask, for fear of public rejection?
“I personally think it has gotten out of control because I worry about the expectations,” said Nancy Sears, who teaches drama at Seminole High. “What will the marriage proposal have to look like? Poor guys!”
Plus, there’s so much pressure on both sides. On the boys to outdo each other; on the girls who feel like they can’t say no in front of all their friends, not after a guy has made such an effort.
“Most girls say ‘yes’ when it happens in public. You just can’t say no with so many people watching,” said Camille Torres, a junior at St. Petersburg High. “Then later they text no.”
Hillsborough High junior Alex Quach’s promposal to senior Cassidy McDuffie didn’t go well.
While scrolling through the promposal hashtag together on Twitter, Quach spotted a banner with one of his girlfriend’s favorite Disney characters from The Little Mermaid. It read: “Will you flounder to prom with me?”
Early one morning, Quach sketched the character on a card. When he gave it to McDuffie, she gave him, “a tentative maybe.”
“I just felt like he didn’t want to put in any effort to go with me,” McDuffie said.
Quach knew he had to ace the next ask. So he crafted a gigantic banner: “Princess, will you go to prom with me?” He gave his girlfriend a tiara, told her to meet him in the cafeteria. When she saw the banner, she said, “I couldn’t help but feel like I was in a movie. It was so perfect.”
Across Tampa Bay, pictures of promposals fill teenagers’ phones and Facebooks. Stories of scavenger hunts, magic acts, boys reciting raps and choreographing dances, of marching bands and bagpipes, fake parking tickets and custom M&Ms, luminarias spelling PROM on a dark dock, a beta fish in a bowl behind a note: “Out of all the fish in the sea, will you go to prom with me?”
Peggy and Peter Post, who took over their great-grandmother’s Emily Post Institute of etiquette, are in their 60s and had never even heard the term promposal until a teen reporter asked for advice. “There’s so much celebrity hype out there, I’m not at all surprised,” said Peggy Post. “I would say no email invites and texts. If they created something beautiful, handwritten or printed, and surprised their date with that, it could be kind of fun.” Peter Post said, “Asking publicly puts too much pressure on the girl. The guy should worry less about a cool way of asking and worry more about asking her face-to-face.”
Could that really be better than calling down through a bullhorn?
• • •
“Okay, everyone be quiet,” Ryan said, holding the rod out the window. “I don’t want her to look up here until she sees the flowers. Don’t blow this for me.”
A dozen kids crowded around him in the third-floor classroom, laughing and shoving and pressing their faces against the glass.
The bell rang. Teenagers flooded the walkways. More than 50 students lined the sidewalk behind the band room, where Brendan hid with Ryan’s sign.
Soon, a trim girl with a purple backpack walked up. Someone shouted, “She’s coming!”
Ryan dropped the flowers.
The bouquet bobbed frantically, up and down, toward the school wall, over the sidewalk. At first, the girl didn’t notice.
“Look up! Carol, look up!” Ryan shouted through the bullhorn. Everyone looked up. Caroline Krueger, 18, laughed and shook her head.
“Will you go to prom with me?” yelled Ryan. “Please?”
The throng cheered. Carol nodded, but didn’t say a word.
As she reached for the flowers, the bullhorn called, “Be careful! That’s a real hook.”
Contributing to this story were Liz Tsourakis, Hillsborough High, Katie Lamont, East Lake High/SPC, who are on the staff of the Tampa Bay Times’ high school weekly and website, tb-two*, and Margot Ash, St. Petersburg High, and Times researcher Caryn Baird.