After lunch today, my twin grandchildren sat down at our kitchen table to address and sign Valentines for their preschool class. The joy and excitement were palpable. This was the final task in preparation for their Valentine’s Party later this week; on Wednesday, all they need to do is take the cards to school, and deliver them to the mailboxes their classmates already have made. The ones created out of a paper sack; decorated with construction paper hearts, ribbon, lacy doilies, and bows. As I watched and listened to them, I realized how poignant it was to recognize the same materials and effort I used in my Valentine’s mailboxes and cards all those years ago when I attended El Vista Elementary School in my little valley town, and to sense the very same excitement over tokens of affection that were coming their way.
Of all the years I spent in that school, my fifth grade was the most outstanding. And Valentine’s Day that year was the greatest of all I would ever experience. It was one of those times when everything seemed to align just right: everyone and everything came together in a perfect combination of place, people, opportunities, gifts, talents. I was happier than I had ever been, and was thrilled anticipating our class Valentine’s Party, the one event each year that defined exactly where we stood in the hierarchy of our childhood social strata.
This particular Valentine’s Day was going to clarify not only how well I was doing, socially, with my classmates, it was going to tell me whether I was correct, or possibly delusional, regarding a certain boy who was new to our school in September. His name was Marty Long, and he had moved to my little valley town that July. It is not easy to describe him, outside of perfection.
That first day of school, into our room walked a boy who was taller than all the other boys I had known since Kindergarten. He had sandy brown hair, freckles across his nose, deep brown eyes, and a broad, friendly smile that wowed every kid in our class. He could play all our schoolyard sports, and was better than anyone on any team, all the while giving credit and encouragement to the other boys who could not hold a candle to his skill. Art was his favorite subject, and he drew freehand, and painted with all the ease and confidence of a master. He could read faster and better than even our teacher, and solved math problems in his head. And he played the trombone. This fifth grade musician was so good, he went straight to first chair in the school band, and no one challenged his position. Besides being so accomplished, he was perhaps the nicest, most courteous person I ever met. His family moved to our town from Oklahoma, and he brought kind, thoughtful manners and a soft southern drawl. Oh yes, to this fifth grade girl he was perfection.
And I was smitten. How could I look at him, and not be completely taken by his charm, talent, and brilliance? Unfortunately, every girl in the school had the exact same response to him, including my nemesis, the one and only Melanie Brooks. She, too, was a vision of perfection. Melanie was beautiful, had silky smooth wavy hair, dressed like a teenager instead of a fifth grader, and was equally as brilliant as Marty. She also brought American Bandstand to life for the girls at our school. She could talk of nothing else that fall, and spent each recess and lunch break teaching us to do the bop. Actually, she taught the other girls in our class to do the bop; I tried and tried, but just could not get the movements down. No, I could not bop. Not at all.
It was mortifying, yet manageable, to have a head of thick, wild, not going to lie down for any reason hair, be the skinniest kid in class, and still have to wear socks with my oxfords, when all the other girls were going without socks and wearing flats. Melanie led the fashion parade with full poodle skirts, extremely starched petticoats, cashmere sweaters, and cute little silk scarves tied around her neck. She was the first girl in our school to have a coat with push up sleeves. I, on the other hand, wore dresses, no starched petticoats, nor full skirts with any kind of animal sewn on, and although my coat finally sported push up sleeves, my arms were so skinny the sleeves just slid right back down to my wrists.
Being comfortable in my own skin was not hard for me, so the clothing issue was minor compared to the problem with not being able to get the hang of the bop. Try as I might, legs and feet refused to coordinate into the dance everyone seemed able to do, and I felt betrayed by my own body.
But, my lame dance ability and body betrayal aside, it finally was Valentine’s Day, school work was completed that morning, and the party would begin right after lunch. I was excited, and anticipating an eventful celebration of LOVE in the fifth grade. Granted, I always could build something up to such an extent, nothing could reach the level of what I had imagined; but I was sure this was going to be a defining moment for me. After all, I had carefully crafted my Valentine mailbox with white paper doilies, red and pink hearts cut with pinking shears from construction paper, and sweet little pink bows. My classmates had been bringing Valentines to school all week, and dropping them in the mailboxes. Even though we were not allowed to look inside, much less touch any of them, I was certain my bag was full of cards from every kid in my room, and I was especially hopeful and confident Marty had left me something expressing the same sentiment for me that I held for him. It was thrilling to think how he would manage it. Heart-fluttering thrilling.
Lunch time was over, we had assembled back in our classroom, and the party was about to begin. Room mothers had provided cupcakes frosted in red icing, with white and pink sprinkles on top, red fruit punch, and sugar cookies cut in the shape of hearts. We played some games, and sang songs accompanied by our teacher playing the harpsichord. And at last, the highlight of the party, dancing. Our teacher had been teaching us how to square dance all year, and it was the most fun I ever had in school. I loved it. Then, without any warning, the rug was pulled out from under me and my square dance loving feet. Our teacher announced we had been so good, and our work done with such accuracy and speed, she was going to reward us with a new thing. Rather than square dancing, she had brought in some 45 RPM records. Rock and roll. And we all could do the bop. Yes, the bop.
Every kid in that classroom, save one, whooped and hollered for all they were worth. Rock and roll! Bop! We had the coolest teacher in the entire school! She beamed with joy at the happiness being expressed by her students, told us to drag our desks to the sides of the room, and then as she put the first 45 on the record player, shouted for all the kids who wanted to dance, to get out there and do it! Melanie made a beeline for Marty, took him by the hand, and pulled him out to the center of our classroom. Most all the other kids followed suit; almost thirty-five fifth graders dancing to At The Hop. All of them doing slightly different versions of the bop. Melanie and Marty looked like experts.
I was not among them. I could not do the bop, did not want to embarrass myself by proving it to all my classmates, and Marty was claimed by the one person to whom I would never measure up. That was the end of my party, emotionally, anyway. I pretended to enjoy the rest of the day, but was relieved and grateful when the final bell rang, and we were dismissed to go home. I grabbed my Valentine mailbox, my coat with the sleeves that would not stay up, and ran all the way to my bike. I do not think anyone pedaled home faster than I did that day, and by the time I arrived, parked my bike in the garage, and ran into my bedroom, the tears were flowing, freely.
Dinner was quiet that night, and after it was over, I went back to my room, finally recovered enough to glance at the Valentines I had been so eager to see earlier in the day. It did not seem to matter anymore, but still they were there, and kids had gone to a lot of effort. I would open them, and then toss them. A fitting end to a really disappointing day.
And that is when I saw it. There in my mailbox was a little red heart box of chocolates. I had not seen anyone put it in there, nor had I heard anyone mention one being in their mailbox; most of the kids having examined the contents of their’s as soon as the bell had rung, and class was dismissed. I pulled it out, and opened the Valentine card attached to the heart. The handwriting was familiar, and stated, I have liked you since the first day of school when I was new and you smiled at me when I walked to my desk. You are fun and I like the way you play dodgeball. Thank you for making me feel welcome. I am moving back to Oklahoma at the end of this year but I will never forget you. Your friend, Marty.
That is all it took. I was devoted to that boy for the rest of the school year, and kept the little red heart box as a remembrance of one of my first loves. Because I recall how sincerely I cared for that boy, I have made a point not to diminish the affections children think they have for one another. They will learn soon enough feelings change, and those lessons will come in ones own time. I also believe it is a good thing to share a token of our affection whenever we have the opportunity. So, tomorrow when the kids address and sign the rest of their Valentines, I think I will join in. I have a paper bag in the cupboard, and a box full of doilies and construction paper somewhere in the closet under the stairs. And just maybe someone will drop by and place a little red heart box of candy into my mailbox, and remind me we all like to find we are loved. Especially when we least expect it.