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Popping the (Prom) Question
Reality TV Show Inspires Ornate Quests for 'Yes'

By Daniel de Vise
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 20, 2008

Before Tim Shaeffer dared ask Corinne Welker to the prom, he first inquired delicately as to how she was likely to respond. She told him, "It kind of depends on how you ask me."

So Shaeffer, 17, and a classmate took a roll of red duct tape to the Bay Ridge community marina and taped his question -- "Prom?" -- to the sail of the family's 30-foot boat. Then, in a triumph of coordination and timing, he arranged to have his parents motor past the sea wall and unfurl the sail as he and Welker sat in a parked car, admiring the Bay Ridge view.

He got the answer he wanted.

"I took it seriously and went all-out," said Shaeffer, a senior at Annapolis High School. "For one thing, I really like her. And . . . I wanted it to be so none of her girlfriends could one-up her. It's getting to where pretty much everybody is going to big lengths to ask people to prom."

The quest for inventive and memorable ways to pop the question has long been a part of wedding culture. And now, it seems, the ritual is spreading to prom.

Among Shaeffer and a group of his friends at Annapolis High, the perennial prom "ask" escalated this spring into a friendly competition over who could make the grander gesture. One classmate posed the question on a microphone in the school cafeteria after placing a bouquet of flowers under the seat of his prospective date. Another printed it on hundreds of fliers and pasted them all over campus.

Sean McDonnell, a 17-year-old senior, spray painted "LIZ PROM?" on a sheet and draped it across an overpass.

"It was amazing to be asked in such a memorable way," said Liz Burdick, 17, who confesses she would have motored past the message if passengers in her car hadn't alerted her. "I knew something big was probably going to happen. They're all really getting into it, and it's really cute."

Elsewhere around the Washington region, young people are attending to prom invitations with a level of preparation and care that one might associate with choosing a dress. Students say they and their classmates are emulating the elaborate prom rituals they have seen on TV.

More specifically, they cite Season 2, Episode 12 of the MTV reality program "Laguna Beach." First broadcast in October 2005, the episode portrays tanned Orange County, Calif., teens impressing their girlfriends with prom proposals involving tow trucks and gorilla suits. That program, and a 2006 sequel, have resonated across pre-collegiate pop culture.

"I think this is a very, very recent development," said Antonia van der Meer, editor in chief of Your Prom magazine. "Prom is a huge event for them, and deciding who you're going to ask and how you're going to ask is obviously taking off."

Rodrigo Gobitz, 18, a senior at Walter Johnson High School in Bethesda, presented Bojana Milojkovic with a dozen red balloons, her name painted on each one. "And then he had a little sign that said, 'Will you go to prom with me?' And there was a check box with 'Yes' and a check box with 'No,' " said Milojkovic, 17. "I said yes, and I gave him a big hug."

A student at Richard Montgomery High School in Rockville enlisted the chorus to pop the question in song. A young man at Archbishop Spalding High School in Severn wrote "PROM?" in whipped cream atop a gelatin mold for a young woman whose wisdom teeth had just been pulled.

"A few weeks ago in the cafeteria," said Natalie Franke, 17, a Spalding senior, "the entire football team came into my lunch and began to chant 'Prom, prom, prom,' and then one of the boys asked his girlfriend to prom. I also have a friend whose date sang her an Elton John song in the middle of the hallway."

Jennifer Burpoe, senior class president at Washington-Lee High School in Arlington County, wrote a piece for the student newspaper listing 11 novel ways to pop the prom question. Her column is gender-neutral, in view of the growing share of girls who tender invitations to boys.

"Take them on a scavenger hunt leading them to places that mean something to the both of you," she wrote. At the end of the hunt, "write 'X marks the spot' on a poster and place it over your head." Other tips: Make a T-shirt with the person's name on the front and "Prom?" on the back; have a barista at a coffee shop write out "Prom" in caramel or foam; or spell it out in candles in the person's back yard, taking care that it has been mowed, so you do not set it on fire.

"If someone were to ask me out that way, I would definitely say yes," said Burpoe, 17. "Girls love to talk about how they were asked."

Staff writer Theresa Vargas contributed to this report.

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