Mr. Paul, the teacher explained, wanted to invite Miss Claire to a princess ball.
For that, Tracy Aitken told her kindergartners at Hollifield Station Elementary, the high school senior needed their help.
The 22 children colored in letters. When Claire Lorenz, 17, arrived for her regular volunteer shift, the kids hoisted them over their heads: "WILL YOU GO TO PROM WITH ME?"
Nearby, Paul Lutchenkov, 17, stood with a bouquet.
"I just had the perfect opportunity. I knew I had to go for it," the Mount Hebron senior said of his proposal, which he planned by email with Aitken. "I knew it would make it special for Claire."
It's the season for scavenger hunts, banners unrolled at Orioles games, messages spelled out with glow sticks and bedsheets. In short, it's promposal time.
For those who remember asking a date to prom over the telephone — perhaps even one of those ancient corded ones — times have changed. These days, the invitation is nearly as important as the evening itself.
Prom proposals have become a rite of spring, with each year's invitations splashier than those before. Posting photos and videos of the proposals on sites such as Instagram and Tumblr is part of the appeal.
"Social media is such a big deal for our generation," said Liz-Ann Inglisa, a senior at Mount de Sales Academy, an all-girls Catholic school. "Everyone wants to do something cute and funny and put it up."
More than 31,000 people follow @ThePromposal on Twitter, which featured invitations spelled out with hockey pucks, pancakes, rose petals and playing cards in recent days. Some of the most clever ideas, such as a proposal scrawled in sauce across a platter of sushi, are shared and "favorited" hundreds of times.
Some students go to extraordinary lengths to craft a proposal. A California teenager drafted "Breaking Bad" star Bryan Cranston to make a video asking a girl to prom for him. And a York, Pa., student was suspended this month after asking Miss America at a school assembly to accompany him to the dance.
It seems almost anyone can be touched by — or enlisted in — a promposal.
"My kindergartners are my favorite people, so it was perfect," said Lorenz, a Mount Hebron senior who hopes to be a teacher. "I asked the kids if they approved and they said, 'Yes.' So I did, too."
Since that day a couple of weeks ago, the children have been asking about the event, which, to their minds, conjures up images of castles and coaches and Cinderella dresses.
"Every day, they say, 'Have you been to the ball yet, Miss Claire?'" she said.
Riley Meekins, a senior at Mount de Sales, is a bit of a prom expert after attending five last year as a junior.
"It's kind of a competition — who can come up with the coolest idea?" Meekins said of the elaborate invitation. "It's almost necessary to do now."
Last year, Meekins hung a banner made from a bedsheet from the window of her home to ask her now-boyfriend to prom. He, in turn, mowed "PROM?" into a hillside of his parents' farm.
This year, Meekins, a 17-year-old Catonsville resident, upped the ante by spelling out "PROM?" with a dozen strands of Christmas lights on the same field.
"I was actually in cahoots with his mom for two weeks to plan it out," said Meekins, who also enlisted the help of her mother and three friends to bring the spectacle to fruition.
Denise Meekins, Riley's mother, said she had never heard of a "promposal" until her daughter started high school.
"I was kind of taken back when she and all her friends were talking about ways to ask guys to the prom," said Meekins, 47, a nurse. "When they talk about prom with their friends, the question isn't 'Did he say yes?' but 'How did you propose?' "
Meekins, herself an alumna of an all-girls Catholic school, the former Archbishop Keough High School, recalls the anxiety involved in asking a boy to a dance.
"It was pretty boring back in my day. You literally just got up the nerve to ask someone and that was it," she said. But today's more public invitations are more fun and creative — and come with a bonus, she said.
"I think it's a great strategy, especially because it makes it difficult for your date to say 'No' when you're asking him in front of 20 people," she said.
The public nature of promposals means that strangers often get caught up in the spectacle.
Sean Burns, an online manager for Lacrosse Magazine, was watching the Orioles play the Toronto Blue Jays a few weeks ago at Camden Yards, when three teenagers suddenly stood up and unrolled a 20-foot-wide banner that said, "PROM? ELLIE."
"It just kind of throws you back to being in high school and walking up to someone with sweaty palms," said Burns.
The 32-year-old said prom invitations have grown much more public since he was in high school.
"I definitely would never put myself that far out on the ledge," said Burns. "If the person says no, everybody knows it."
Rachel Wilkerson, a 17-year-old senior at Oakland Mills High School in Columbia, said promposals seem to grow more elaborate each year.
One classmate surprised his girlfriend by skating to meet her on an ice rink with a bouquet of flowers. Another dressed as a cat to surprise his girlfriend, whose nickname is Kitty. A third enlisted friends to hand puzzle pieces to his date throughout the day. Once assembled, they composed an invitation.
"It's about having the biggest and best promposal, at least at our school," she said. "A lot of it has to do with people wanting to one-up their friends."
Wilkerson was planning to surprise a friend in the freshman class with cupcakes and candy and a sign that said, "It would be sweet if you come to prom with me."
Her lacrosse teammate, sophomore Morgan Carroll, has watched girls be invited to prom through scavenger hunts and messages spelled out with cups jammed into a wire fence. This year, it was her turn to be invited.
Senior Ryan Zovko enlisted a friend to lead Carroll, 15, out of the girls' locker room after school. One of the boy's friends was waiting with a balloon and a sign with an arrow that said, "Hi Morgan, this way."
Carroll followed a trail of lacrosse players holding balloons and arrows until she came to Zovko, who was holding a sign that said, "Morgan, prom?"
Barbara Greenburg, a Connecticut psychologist who specializes in adolescents, said the proposals offer a chance for teenagers to express themselves.
"They want to be recognized. They want to establish an identity," she said.
Teenagers develop creativity and teamwork skills as they invent and collaborate on the invitations, she said.
Of course, sometimes simple proposals are best.
Inglisa, one of the Mount de Sales seniors, had helped friends invite guys by spelling out messages with hundreds of glow sticks and silly string.
But when it came time to invite her friend, Loyola Blakefield senior Ben Brown, to her prom, she chose to appeal to his stomach.
Inglisa found out through friends that Brown was a fan of Chipotle burritos. She ordered one with his favorite toppings, scrawled, "So, prom?" on the bag, set it on his car, and waited with friends a few parking spots away.
"Oh, I said yes, of course," said Brown, 18, of Mayfield. "How could I turn that down? It was the perfect way to get to my heart."
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