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‘Promposals’ becoming elaborate affairs with personal touches

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With his heart on his sleeve and plastic letters of the alphabet in his hands, Ryan T. Snow found himself in front of the Dexter village sign one chilly morning this spring, tasked with creating a public display.

There, on the sign off Route 180 that’s normally reserved for community notices such as benefit bake sales and barbecues, he spelled it out for all to see: “Bria – Prom With Me — Love Ryan.”

It was a literal sign that the days of students simply asking a date to the prom have become as stale as a preserved corsage.

Fueled by social media, the proposals have graduated to personal, often elaborate, affairs — “promposals.”

For guys, the ones who traditionally invite dates to the high school prom, the trend can be refreshing, giving them some say in the big dance and an opportunity to express themselves.

“I would definitely say more people are trying to go more elaborate with their promposals,” said Watertown High School senior Dominic P. Uliano IV. “It’s changed from the face-to-face questions.”

Only two years ago, a Times feature story described the effort that local guys put into the prom as “a cakewalk compared to the efforts girls put into it.” Even the 2012 WHS salutatorian, Dennis P. Caughlin, said at the time, “Guys are just along for the ride.”

Emily G. Sprague, who teaches English at Watertown High — mostly to seniors — and who is the school’s yearbook adviser, said she noticed the promposal trend starting about two years ago.

“The invitations became more elaborate, and there was more pressure to come up with something clever,” she said.

That’s why Mr. Snow, a senior at General Brown Central High School, found himself in front of the Dexter village sign about a month before his school’s prom, which was Saturday.

Mr. Snow, a star wrestler, said he got permission from the village to put up the letters. His name was on the sign previously for his accomplishments in the sport.

On the night he placed the letters, he told his girlfriend, Bria N. Podvin, a freshman at Jefferson Community College and a 2013 graduate of South Jefferson Senior High School, that they should check out the sign for any updates on him.

“He was pretending to have me look at the sign congratulating him for going to the nationals for wrestling,” Miss Podvin said.

The pair drove past the sign.

“When I saw (it), I said, ‘Oh my god! My name’s on there!’ ” Miss Podvin said.



PERSONAL TOUCHES

Carthage High senior Gabriella M. Park said promposals are interesting because they reflect the personalities of those involved.

“Mine was goofy,” she said of the gesture, which involved her date surprising her in the cargo area of her 2007 Hyundai Tucson with balloons and flowers. “He (junior Joshua R. Yelvington) popped out of my trunk.”

Carthage senior Ryan A. Pete said that last year, when he asked fellow student Claire L. Sauter to the prom, he simply put notes and posters on and inside her car. But he took a more personal approach for this year’s prom, scheduled for May 17.

He asked Miss Sauter, a senior at Carthage, again this year. Mr. Pete knew the movie “Frozen” had become one of her favorites, so he taped the “Frozen” DVD onto a big piece of poster board with a quote from the movie by the character Princess Anna: “This is awkward. Not you’re awkward, but just ‘cause we’re — I’m awkward. You’re gorgeous. Wait, what?”

“It’s an awkward moment in the movie when the princess meets a prince,” Miss Sauter said.

He completed the poster with the word “Prom?”

Miss Sauter said Mr. Pete promposed to her after one of her lacrosse practices at school.

“I wasn’t paying attention at first when I was walking down the steps,” she said. “I looked up and there were about 20 people standing there, watching.”

Aside from giving her the poster, Mr. Pete — a baseball player at Carthage — also held a ball with “Prom?” written on it in addition to the date the two teens began dating: May 22, 2011.



ROOTS IN ‘LAGUNA BEACH’

According to Andrea Graham, a youth culture consultant in New York City, the roots of the promposal can be traced to the MTV reality series “Laguna Beach: The Real Orange County,” which ran from 2004 to 2006. Its participants were known for dramatic prom proposals.

Ms. Graham said that in addition to “Laguna Beach” on television, “pre-recession, competitive coming-of-age parties” can be linked to the promposal trend.

“Parents and teens in affluent communities became obsessed with planning the biggest, most-talked-about Bat Mitzvahs, Sweet 16s and Quincineras, and naturally these expectations had a tremendous influence on young people’s prom expectations,” she said. “Prom has long been a big deal, but now, every aspect of the prom experience had to be turned up a notch, including promposals.”

Students also are fueling the trend via social media.

“We, as a society, have become obsessed with novelty and celebrity,” Ms. Graham said. “So our interest in these elaborate promposal stunts encourages youth to share these special and well-thought-out moments, not only with their friends and family, but the whole world.”

That sharing is part of the re-emergence of the interest that high school students, especially males, are putting on proms, according to pop culture expert Robert Thompson, who finds the practice refreshing.

“The prom used to be a big deal,” said Mr. Thompson, director of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University. He said the events used to be the primary way that youths celebrated their journey into adulthood.

“Now, so many people go to college,” Mr. Thompson said. “It’s almost more of a 10-year difference between actual emergence into full-scale adulthood than there was even two generations ago.”

That’s the main reason proms turned more casual a few decades ago, Mr. Thompson said.

But with the resurgence of prom festivities, guys apparently enjoy putting charm on for potential dates, and others, to see.

Mr. Pete said promposals attract a crowd and are a popular topic of conversation.

“It’s something all the guys talk about,” he said. “When we play sports together, we say, ‘What are you going to do this year?’”

Girls also talk about them and enjoy the anticipation of who will be asked and in what fashion.

“After a while, it’s gotten more competitive,” said Watertown High senior Brittany E. Kaler. “People want to upstage people. I feel like the girls have honestly expected more, like they want something big. Their friends will go, ‘Oh my God! You got asked in such a cute way.’ And it creates a chain reaction.”

But it doesn’t create peer pressure for those asking, according to Mr. Pete.

“I actually think it’s a really fun thing to do,” he said. “You put a smile on someone’s face.”



A SPORTING APPROACH

Carthage High senior Jacob A. Walls sought help from the friends of Taylour A. Campbell — his potential prom date — to pull off his promposal. Miss Campbell plays lacrosse, and Mr. Walls wanted to stitch letters spelling out “Prom?” into the netting of lacrosse sticks. Some of Miss Campbell’s teammates lent him their backup sticks for the task.

When Miss Campbell walked out of practice one day last month, Mr. Walls was waiting with the five altered sticks spelling out “Prom?” nearby against a wall. For further strategy, he held a dozen roses.

“I hugged him and said, ‘Yes,’” Miss Campbell said. “I wasn’t expecting it. It was really nice knowing my friends had helped out and someone went to that much effort to ask me to the prom. It’s definitely something you won’t forget when you’re older.”

Watertown High senior Joseph R. Morris was pretty sure his longtime girlfriend, senior Rachael M. Coon, would say yes to his proposal to the May 17 prom.

“But she said it had to be creative,” he said.

So he revived an approach he began in the eighth grade.

“I was too shy to talk to her, so I used to make index cards and give them to her,” he said. “We used to send notes back and forth.”

This spring he wrote more messages on index cards — with lyrics from country and western songs — and saved them. When he had gathered enough, he taped them to her car in the school parking lot, spelling out “Prom” across the hood. He also taped a small, plush duck to Miss Coon’s car antenna with a message that it would be “Quack Tastic” if she accepted.

Which she did.



‘RESPECT FOR THE SCHOOL’

Jean St. Croix, a teacher and the junior/senior class adviser at Carthage High, said he sees no harm in promposals, but Mrs. Sprague sees the “good and bad” in the trend.

“I think it’s a wonderful thing,” Mr. St. Croix said. “They (students) have had the respect for the school where they are not interrupting classes. It doesn’t impact the education at all. We want to have a normal school day. These kids are doing it after school, and I think it’s a unique way of asking someone to the prom.”

Said Mrs. Sprague: “I have mixed feelings. I’m all for things that are clever and creative. But for somebody who is shy and doesn’t want a lot of attention, it takes all the courage in the world to ask someone they like to the prom, male or female. That kind of pressure becomes a little much.”

She said it can lead to temporary heartbreak.

“And that happened to a young man here that I know and like very well,” she said.

That student, Mrs. Sprague said, bounced back fine.

“(He) promposaled another young lady, who gladly accepted his invitation,” she said.

Or a rejection can lead to tragedy.

In Connecticut, a 16-year-old student was charged with murder after he allegedly stabbed a girl to death at Jonathan Law High School in Milford nine days ago. Reports say the girl, also 16, was stabbed after she turned down the boy’s request to attend the school prom with him because she planned to go with her boyfriend instead.

Such loss of life is the ultimate tragedy, of course, but the new “social practice” of promposals might come at another cost, according to Dr. Fahd Rawra, a psychiatrist at Samaritan Medical Center in Watertown.

“Our competitive spirit, along with the pressures of ever-evolving social demands, may be subjecting our children to too much stress,” he said. “Whatever happened to the simplicity of candy grams and informal invitations to the prom?

“The more elaborate the proposal is, the more people it involves, from friends who are helping with the proposal to random passers-by that would help with applauding and make the moment seem even more special. Conversely, a ‘no’ in front of your peers could translate into embarrassment of higher proportions.”

Dr. Rawra said there are ways to deal with rejection. One is to have a contingency plan.

“Basically, what will you do if this fails?” he said. “First off, is failing that bad? I know it will hurt and set you back, but will the world implode and all traces of life disappear? Life is about chances. There will always be more.”



‘TOO INGRAINED’

Miss Graham, the youth culture consultant, thinks promposals are here to stay.

“It’s too ingrained in our pop culture now to just completely disappear,” she said.

But all the planning and surprises might leave some parents perplexed.

“I went with Ryan’s father,” said Jessica Cerow, the mother of General Brown senior Ryan Snow.

When she and Chad Snow went to the prom in the mid-1990s at General Brown, there was no big pre-production.

“We basically just said, ‘Let’s go to the prom,’” Ms. Cerow said.

Even today, there are old-school holdouts among students — fans of low-key approaches.

Watertown High senior Chelsea Bedard was simply asked by her date to attend the prom.

“He did it over text,” Miss Bedard said. “But I’m not the kind of person who expects anything big.”

More: ‘Promposals’ by cookie dough and mock yearbook pages: http://wdt.me/TeXyob.




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