HARTFORD, CONN. — When it came time to ask Amanda Costello to the junior prom, Joe Moreau couldn't bear to lean against a locker and stammer through the question between classes.
"I wanted it to be special," says Joe, 17. "You know, do something different from everyone else."
He hatched a scheme with Amanda's best girlfriend, Melinda Grabow. They would need pink chalk and a bouquet of white roses.
"A lot of people knew," recalls Amanda, 15. "I had no clue."
So on a Sunday afternoon, Melinda stood at the window in Amanda's bedroom and told her friend to come see something strange.
Expecting to see wild turkeys "because I live by Case Mountain," Amanda peered out the window.
So saw no turkeys. Instead, there stood Joe, flowers in hand. On the driveway was a simple question, scrawled in chalk: "Prom?"
In this rite of teenage passage, the details seem to grow more elaborate with every class. The dresses, the jewelry, the hair. The pre-prom party, the post-prom party, the weekend at the beach.
So it is with the question that starts it all.
"This is one more way teens are making the prom a very special event for themselves," says Christa Vagnozzi, editor of PromSpot.com, which offers advice on picking the right person to ask, what to wear and how to make it a special night.
Asking on the phone, texting or instant-messaging "Prom?" or posting the question on social network sites like MySpace.com are the most popular methods.
"A lot of things we do these days is by text message and IM. So we're pretty much used to it," says Kianna Jensen, 16, a junior. Like most of her classmates, she was asked to the prom by a good guy friend via text message. "I guess it's not the most personal way to do it, but I was excited."
But Vagnozzi says she's hearing of grand proposals that border on engagements, and quirky approaches that use video-sharing sites like YouTube.com to either do the asking or document it.
"Teens love the idea of mimicking celebrities," she says. " I think it's the influence from TV shows like 'Laguna Beach.' "
The MTV reality show about a gaggle of rich kids in Orange County is partly to blame for the creative twist on the ritual of the asking -- an angst-filled proposition to begin with.
The show's teens upped the ante with their romantic gestures of limo rides and candles that spell out the question, beachfront proposals and cringe-worthy poems: "Of all the fish in the sea, prom with me?" One girl arrived home to a trail of rose petals that led to a shirtless boy with the words, "Prom ... Please?" written on his chest. Another pair ambushed their targets dressed in gorilla costumes, bearing banana-shaped signs asking, "Prom?"
"Everybody talks about it" the next day, says Sarah Jones, director of student activities at a local high school. "Sometimes the person doesn't say yes or no right away and everybody's waiting to see what happens.... For me, it's like going to high school all over again, year after year."
It's a lot of pressure on the person doing the asking, Jones says. "There have been some really big-style gestures, and students who admit they've Laguna-ed it."
Joe's proposal to Amanda, for instance. When Amanda saw him standing on the driveway, she shut and opened her window shades twice in disbelief before running outside to accept.
"I think it meant more since it was, like, a really big surprise," she says. "It's something I'll probably never forget."
Liz Benfield, 18, would have said yes to boyfriend Alex Trueb whether he asked by phone or text, big deal or not.
Alex, 17, knew this. "But I was trying to come up with something creative," he says.
The two made plans to grab food after school. Alex sent Liz ahead, fibbing that he needed to use the restroom. Liz stopped at her car to get her bag and found a red rose and an envelope tucked under a windshield wiper.
"I don't want anyone else to have the privilege to ask you to prom," the handwritten note said. "All I want to know is ... will you go to prom with me?"
When Alex emerged from the building, he was greeted with a hug, a kiss and a yes. He had one more surprise: a pair of earrings to match a bracelet he had gotten her for her birthday.
"My mom was like, 'Oh, I love this boy. He's a keeper,' " Liz recalls.