A high school junior demolishing a bagel described the pressure.
“Yeah, it’s stressful, because you have to do it right,” he explained on his way to class at Yorktown High School in Arlington.
SATs? AP tests? College applications?
“And it’s gotta be big. I mean, BIG,” said one of his pals.
“And public. It has to be really public,” added another, and the weight of it all seemed to droop his slight shoulders a little more.
What’s stressing out these 17-year-old peach-fuzz boys laden with backpacks and books and athletic bags?
Promposals. This is the phenomenon — celebrated in movies and Allstate car insurance commercials — in which teens ask each other to prom in increasingly elaborate and creative ways.
Sounds kind of cute and harmless. But here’s the thing that floored me this year: A study that Visa released this week on teen credit card spending revealed that the average prom costs $919 a couple, with $324 going toward the promposal. Crazy, right?
Proms have become mini-weddings, with promposals part of what the boys at Yorktown described as a “tradition.”
Check it out on Twitter — #promposal will show you some of the outrageous ones, with Richie Riches hiring helicopters to descend on the lucky girl or planes to skywrite “Prom?”
It’s become one more way to make the confusing, stressful, divisive and cliquish tendencies of high school even worse, further underscoring the haves and the have-nots.
Of course, not all promposals are pricey. There are Tumblrs and Pinterest pages filled with promposals — the question spelled out in tea lights on her porch, in pepperoni on her pizza, in tacos. Guys (and girls, too) do scavenger hunts. But one kid popped the question written on a mainsail unfurled on a sailing trip.
The whole prom thing has gotten out of hand. “The money. That’s the problem. If she says yes, you’re spending so much money,” one of the high school juniors I talked to said.
And the promposal only ratchets up the pressure. The Yorktown juniors are already plotting and planning, trying to make sure their big ask is epic.
“I’m going to find out the college she wants to go to. And I’m going to make it look like a college acceptance letter. But it will be inviting her to prom,” one forward-thinking junior told me.
Some school districts in Texas and Pennsylvania have banned on-campus promposals because they’ve become so disruptive and divisive.
But plenty of educators enjoy them.
“Oh, they’re fun,” said Nardos King, principal of Mount Vernon High School in Northern Virginia, which has a large population of military kids from nearby Fort Belvoir and not the kind of student body with the means to hire helicopters.
Students there have asked for King’s help in interrupting the school television broadcast or public announcements, or they’ve hung banners with the promposal in the cafeteria. She even offered free prom tickets to the couple with the most creative promposal.
But she would probably try to put the brakes on any high-dollar ideas. “It’s not like this is a marriage proposal,” she said.
At Walt Whitman High School in Bethesda, Md., principal Alan Goodwin also tries to do his part to help kids pull them off.
“Sometimes they’ll sing a song and ask us to play it or put something they’ve written on the class Promethean board,” he said.
For the kids, it’s all about being center stage.
Hannah Delmonte, a junior at Woodgrove High School in Purcellville, Va., did “the mother of all promposals,” Loudoun County spokesman Wade Byard told me. She asked one of her NFL heroes, Philadelphia Eagles linebacker Emmanuel Acho, to prom. He said he would come if she got 10,000 retweets on her invitation. Guess what that football player will be doing May 9?
A lot of girls love promposals. “The bigger, the better,” said a junior at Yorktown who is eagerly awaiting what some poor schlub will sweat over.
My worry is that it’s another activity that emphasizes popularity and leaves the less-cool feeling lousy about themselves. Kind of like electing a prom king and queen.
“Yeah, I’ve gotta start coming up with mine,” said a prom-king-looking senior at Yorktown. “For homecoming, I had all these guys line up on the field, and I spelled it out on their chests, with paint: H-O-M-E-C-O-M-I-N-G.”
Usually, there’s a question mark at the end, right?
“No question mark. It was HOMECOMING, period on the last guy. Because I knew she was coming,” Mr. King told me.
This is the key: “You’ve gotta make sure she’s going to say yes. Or you’re on Twitter,” one of the Yorktown guys said.
Yeah, that was the big lesson that Dwayne Jones, principal at Laurel High School in Maryland, took away from this.
He’ll never forget the kid who went through great lengths to persuade the staff at a Planet Hollywood in Florida during the senior trip to broadcast his question over the restaurant’s sound system.
“He didn’t do his research, and turned out she had a boyfriend,” Jones said. “So that’s what I always tell these kids now. Due diligence. Do your research before you put yourself out there like that.”
But what can be the most humiliating day of your young life now has the potential to showcase your uniqueness, one group of students told me.
They knew a science geek who asked a girl to prom by spelling the question out using the periodic table of elements.
“Awww, that was sweet,” one girl remembered.
The drama geeks act out elaborate skits. The choir kids sing. The tennis players spelled out the question by shoving tennis balls in the fence.
Maybe this is actually great relationship training, ensuring that young men put a lot more thought into asking. Others wonder if it isn’t a ploy for extorting a lot more intimacy than was originally planned on the big night.
In the end, success isn’t really measured by a yes. (”Sometimes, the girl will say yes publicly, but tell him no later when no one else is around,” one 17-year-old told me.) Or how much fun they had at prom. Or how thoughtful the promposal was.
“You have to get it on YouTube. Public. It has to be out there,” a member of the Look-At-Me generation told me.
Clicks. Likes. Shares. That’s the currency today, fame by any means necessary.
To read previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/dvorak.